AST SpaceMobil announced its latest satellite-based connectivity milestone, making “5G” voice and data connections between a standard smartphone and a satellite. We say “5G” because there are no 5G satellite standards – only ITU-R M.2150 for terrestrial 5G. 3GPP Rel 17-20 will specify 5G SatCom.
Using the BlueWalker 3 test satellite and its 693-square-foot array — the largest such commercial telecommunications array in low Earth orbit — engineers at AST SpaceMobile made history on September 8, 2023, by demonstrating the first-ever 5G cellular connectivity from space directly to everyday smartphones. The company proved the feat using AT&T cellular spectrum in Maui, Hawaii, to make a voice call to Vodafone in Madrid, Spain. The call was facilitated by Nokia’s network core. The company also recently achieved other firsts in space-based cellular broadband, an industry it pioneered: voice calls, 4G data downloads of more than 14 Mbps, and 4G video calls.
AST SpaceMobile has included a YouTube link of its own in its latest announcement.
The two new milestones come in the wake of AST SpaceMobile’s announcement in April that it had completed the first ever space-based voice calls using normal smartphones.
It has, of course, come under scrutiny for that claim. In July Lynk, which is building an LEO constellation to create what it terms ‘cell towers in space,’ also claimed to have completed the world’s first voice calls over its network. Lynk seemed to hang much of its claim on the fact that it had a video as proof, although opinions vary on how conclusive such a video could be.
“Once again, we have achieved a significant technological advancement that represents a paradigm shift in access to information. Since the launch of BlueWalker 3, we have achieved full compatibility with phones made by all major manufacturers and support for 2G, 4G LTE, and now 5G,” said AST SpaceMobile CEO Abel Avellan. It’s worth noting that BlueWalker 3 is a test satellite; AST Space Mobile plans to launch its first five commercial satellites in the first quarter of next year.
“Making the first successful 5G cellular broadband connections from space directly to mobile phones is yet another significant advancement in telecommunications AST SpaceMobile has pioneered,” Avellan declared. Vodafone, AT&T and Nokia also contributed – slightly less self-congratulatory – statements about their own roles in proceedings and the potential of the technology to connect the unconnected.
It’s hard to argue with that last point, which is part of the reason why satellite-based connectivity is having something of an extended moment in the spotlight, with AST SpaceMobile, Lynk, Sateliot and others talking up their various achievements.
AST SpaceMobile describes itself as “the company building the first and only space-based cellular broadband network accessible directly by standard mobile phones.”
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New research from Juniper Research forecasts that network operators will generate $17 billion of additional revenue from 3GPP‑compliant 5G satellite networks between 2024 and 2030.
Editor’s Note: There is no serious work in ITU-R on 5G satellite networks as we’ve previously detailed. The real SatCom air interface specifications work is being done by 3GPP, under the umbrella term of NTN (Non-terrestrial Networks), in Release 17 and the forthcoming Release 18.
ITU-R WP5D is responsible for terrestrial IMT radio interfaces (IMT-2000, IMT-Advanced and IMT-2020/M.2150 as well as IMT for 2030 and Beyond), so it won’t be involved in standardizing radio interfaces satellite networks.
ITU-R Working Party 4B (WP 4B) is responsible for recommendations related to: Systems, air interfaces, performance and availability objectives for FSS, BSS and MSS, including IP-based applications and satellite news gathering.
The market research firm urges network operators to sign partnerships with SNOs (Satellite Network Operators) which will enable operators to launch monetizable satellite-based 5G services to their subscribers. SNOs possess capabilities to launch next-generation satellite hardware into space, as well as being responsible for the operation and management of the resulting networks.
The new report, Global 5G Satellite Networks Market 2023-2030 offers the most reliable source of data for the market.
Operators Hold the Key Billing Relationship:
The research predicts the first commercial launch of a 5G satellite network will occur in 2024, with over 110 million 3GPP‑compliant 5G satellite connections in operation by 2030. To capitalise on this growth, the research urges operators to prioritise immediate partnerships with SNOs that can launch GSO (Geostationary Orbit) satellites. These satellites follow the rotation of the earth to always be located above the country that the operator serves; providing consistent connectivity.
Additionally, operators must leverage their pre-existing billing relationship with mobile subscribers and enterprises as a platform to grow 5G satellite connectivity revenue over the next seven years. The report anticipates this existing billing relationship will enable operators to rapidly drive the adoption of satellite connectivity by integrating satellite services into existing terrestrial networks.
3GPP Releases related to SatCom:
3GPP Rel-17 is enabling the launch of satellite-based communications. Unlike traditional telecommunications ecosystems, the development of this market will be defined by the entrance of a new category of players – satellite vendors. These vendors will work with network operators to deploy NTNs (Non-terrestrial Networks) that side alongside terrestrial networks.
NTNs are a joint development between network operators and satellite vendors to drive growth of telecommunications services. In the future, NTNs will integrate directly with satellite-based networks to provide connectivity with comprehensive services.
However, the development of NTN specifications is far from complete, the 3GPP roadmap includes provisions in 3GPP Releases 18 and 19 for enhancements to satellite services. 3GPP Release 20 includes the provision of satellite-based standards for future 6G networks. It is only with these standards that satellite networks can progress past traditional use cases, such as weather monitoring, global positioning services and broadcasting, which require low-to-medium throughput rates and do not need low latency.
Additionally, satellites have not been required, as the low data rates provided by previous iterations of satellite technologies, combined with the high costs of satellite connectivity, have not been able to compete with the service provided by terrestrial networks.
These will be the most immediate benefits of satellite-based services for 5G networks:
• Increased network coverage: Satellites will provide increased coverage to areas where terrestrial networks are financially unviable. This is most notable in rural areas where there is little demand for cellular connectivity; leaving operators with no return on investment into the needed backhaul infrastructure and base stations.
• Increased support of backhaul infrastructure: Given the data-intensive nature of 5G services, satellite infrastructure will be used to carry data in a similar fashion to fibre services in terrestrial networks.
• Increase network capacity and throughput: Satellites can offload data from terrestrial networks. As the number of 5G connections increases, so will the data generated. In turn, satellites can not only provide coverage in areas where there is little support for 5G services, but they can also alleviate geographical areas that require high throughput and support for a large number of connections.
• More network resilience: Satellites will provide an additional layer of network redundancy for communication services during natural disasters or network outages. When terrestrial networks are inoperable, satellites will be used for connectivity in the absence of terrestrial network.
Preparation for 6G Networks:
However, the research predicts operators will increasingly rely on SNOs for service provision as 6G development accelerates. Research author Sam Barker commented:
“Operators must not only think of 5G satellite services when choosing an SNO partner, but also the forward plan for 6G networks, including coverage and throughput capabilities.”
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The new market research suite offers the most comprehensive assessment of the 3GPP‑compliant 5G satellite network to date; providing analysis and forecasts of over 24,000 data points across 60 markets over five years.
View the 5G Satellite Networks market research: https://www.juniperresearch.com/researchstore/operators-providers/5g-satellite-networks-research-report
Download a free sample: https://www.juniperresearch.com/whitepapers/5g-satellite-networks-the-17bn-operator
Some analyst say that space-based 5G (which has yet to be standardized) will enable enhanced service to cities but also connects remote regions, including areas without traditional mobile service, ships off-shore, through natural disasters and in contested battlefields. Features of 5G from Space might include: connecting massive numbers of Internet of Things (IoT) sensors and devices.
From a March 14, 2023 Congressional Research Service In Focus report, National Security Implications of 5G Mobile Technologies:
5G mobile technologies will increase the speed of data transfer and improve bandwidth over existing fourth generation (4G) technologies, in turn enabling new military and commercial applications. 5G technologies are expected to support interconnected or autonomous devices, such as smart homes, self-driving vehicles, precision agriculture systems, industrial machinery, and advanced robotics. 5G for the military could additionally improve intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) systems and processing; enable new methods of command and control (C2); and streamline logistics systems for increased efficiency, among other uses. As 5G technologies are developed and deployed, Congress may consider policies for spectrum management and national security, as well as implications for U.S. military operations.
U.S. military leaders are telling the wireless and satellite industries they see great potential in 5G, and they’re asking for standards, open interfaces and simple devices.
“I am excited to see what the next couple of years will bring,” said Brigadier General Steve Butow, space portfolio director at the U.S. Defense Innovation Unit. “It is important to take advantage of technologies produced at scale.” Butow joined Colonel Joseph Roberts, assistant program executive officer, PEO C3T, U.S. Army, on a panel at SATELLITE 2023 entitled “The Role of Space-Based 5G in Military Communications.” Executives from defense contractor Lockheed Martin and satellite giant Hughes were also on the panel.
Roberts said space-based 5G can be a “game changer” because it creates “the opportunity to connect every soldier on the battlefield.” Butow encouraged the wireless industry to “migrate to open architectures.” He said that if the industry adopts open interfaces it will “create an environment where we can do lots of business with you.”
Source: Getty Images
At least one satellite operator is also advocating for open interfaces for the wireless infrastructure industry. Open RAN is a top priority for HughesNet® in its work with Dish Network, explained Rick Lober, VP and GM at Hughes’ government and defense division. “We are pushing that very hard,” he said, adding “I’m not sure everyone is on board.”
Lober added that he hopes users of network infrastructure will take full advantage of open RAN by working with a diverse set of vendors. “If you are going to have a program that is about open standards, do not award it to one company,” he said.
Dawna Morningstar, director, next generation solutions at Lockheed Martin, said industry standards are “the critical underpinning” that enables interoperability and scalability. She said Lockheed Martin is actively engaged with wireless industry standards boards. She highlighted 3GPP Release 17’s (not a standard) inclusion of interoperability with non-terrestrial networks. “We can now have these open solutions for air and space that can integrate seamlessly with the terrestrial networks,” she said. “We can get the intelligence down where it needs to be, and back up and distributed.”
Verizon’s Cory Davis, AVP Public Safety at Frontline, said the military is interested in portable 5G private network solutions. Verizon’s Tactical Humanitarian Operations Response (THOR) 5G on wheels has the capabilities the military wants, Davis said, but the form factor is too big for some use cases. “They want to put THOR in a backpack and take it to the desert,” Davis said.