5G Takes to the Stars

Article By : Dan Jones

The next major release of the 5G NR standard will add a new capability for the technology, enabling the very latest devices to connect directly to compatible satellites in orbit overhead and send and receive voice calls and text messages.

Get ready to never have an excuse to be off the grid again. The latest update to the 5G New Radio (5G NR) standard will enable compatible devices to connect with 5G capable satellites anywhere in the world, without requiring specialist phones to get networked.

The 5G upgrade from the 3GPP Release 17 is expected to be frozen in the second quarter of 2022, meaning no new features will be added to that specification. Commercial devices using the modernization of the standard could be on the market by the middle of 2023.

The 3GPP has added a Non-Terrestrial Networks (NTN) element to Release 17 after studying NTN scenarios from Release 15 onwards. This will enable users of Release 17 5G phones to directly link up to compatible 5G satellites without the need for a ground-based cellular network connection.

This is the first time a standard 5G cellular phone (albeit one using the latest 3GPP standard) will be able to receive a connection from a satellite orbiting the earth. In fact, the coming of Release 17 will mark one of the first times that a standard cellular phone will be directly connected to a compatible satellite.

Previously, this was almost entirely the realm of expensive proprietary satellite phones that use the L-Band (1.5-1.6 GHz) and S-Band (2-4 GHz) to connect to spacecraft located hundreds of miles above the devices.

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Northern Sky Research (NSR) analyst Lluc Palerm says that NTN compliant phones will use standard 5G frequencies (sub-6 GHz, millimeter wave) to connect to satellites. The analyst suggests that the NTN program will also incorporate satellite frequencies such as the L-Band.

He says that “traditional players” such as Inmarsat, as well as startups like Lynk Global, are gearing up to provide direct satellite to mobile 5G links for end-users and IoT applications. The analyst expects that the service will be available from low earth orbit (LEO) units, typically around 800 kilometers (km) up, and geostationary equatorial orbit (GEO) craft, which can circle 36,000 km above the globe.

“That’s going to be very big, in the sense that it’s going to open a huge additional market for the satellite industry,” Palerm said.

You shouldn’t, however, expect this update to mean that you can use your Release 17 5G phone to receive TikTok videos from space.

“In the early stages, this will be for low data rate applications,” stated Palerm. “Use cases that still work well in low data rate environments are IoT, emergency [and] text messaging.”

ABI Research senior research director Dimitris Mavrakis describes satellite 5G as an “interesting concept” although he warns that “it may be very challenging to implement.”

5G direct connection won’t be cheap!

Current dedicated satellite phone plans are expensive, especially for contracts that only support voice communications and basic text messages. The Iridium plans for 2021 start at $54.99 for a contract that allows 10 minutes of satellite phone use a month and top out at $929.99 for a 1,000 minute a month annual plan.

That doesn’t mean that “day passes” to connect a 5G phone to a satellite will be inexpensive when they become available, though such passes will possibly be cheaper than a monthly or annual dedicated satellite phone plan that you may only utilize once a year.

“It’s definitely going to be more expensive than the regular mobile service,” Palerm told EE Times.

Exactly how much more expensive 5G coverage passes will be we don’t know yet. None of the major players in the market have made a public statement about that.

IoT oceanwide!

Palerm predicts that, beyond 5G phone users, the IoT market will be “one of the key drivers” of direct satellite connectivity. The 3GPP has run a study on running the NB-IoT air interface over satellite. Inmarsat and MediaTek have already run a test in orbit.

“Obviously, you have the remote kind of use cases,” the analyst says of the kind of IoT applications

Artist’s rendering of an Inmarsat-6 satellite, which will support 5G. (Source: Inmarsat.)

that will use direct connections to satellites, citing the agriculture, energy, and transport sectors as likely initial users. For both end-users and companies deploying IoT applications, getting cellular access where it would otherwise be impossible will be the main attraction of direct satellite connection.

When you live on a planet where the ocean covers more than 70 percent of its surface and cellular networks cover only 85% of the world’s population, direct satellite connection can mean completing a remote job or saving a life.

LEO ambitions

There have been other moves towards delivering LEO satellite communications to standard phones, evidencing increased curiosity in companies like SpaceX and the growing capabilities of hundreds of new LEO nanosatellites that are orbiting around the earth today. “We think that there’s a lot of excitement and interest in this whole space of these little low orbit networks,” Gus Vos, chief scientist at Sierra Wireless told EE Times recently.

Startup Lynk Global revealed on March 18, 2020, that it had connected an ordinary mobile phone to one of its so-called “cell towers in space” — LEO nanosatellites launched via SpaceX rockets — and sent a text message from above the Falkland Islands. The startup said it repeated the test multiple times with independent observers on the scene.

The company has filed a license application with the FCC to launch a small constellation of satellites to start a direct-to-mobile satellite connection service in 2022.

Meanwhile, TF International Securities analyst Ming-Chi Kuo very recently told investors (according to MacRumors) that the forthcoming Apple iPhone 13 would support a customized Qualcomm X60 baseband chip that would allow it to connect to LEO satellites to make calls and send texts without requiring a cellular connection.

Later reports have pushed back on the scope of any satellite connectivity planned by Apple, suggesting that the company would only(!) allow iPhone 13 users to use LEO satellite connections to text emergency services in areas that don’t have cellular network coverage. We’ll have to wait for the launch of the new iPhone 13 models in mid-September to find out the truth of the matter.

Growing interest

There is clearly a growing commercial interest in the direct satellite to mobile phone connectivity that the Release 17 5G NTN update addresses. We don’t know exactly how long it will take to deliver compatible phones and satellite chipsets to make the extra-terrestrial network a reality.

Observers usually expect elements frozen in the latest 5G release to appear in commercial devices about a year after the specification is completed. New Release 17 elements should be available in commercial devices by the middle of 2023. That is if there are no further hold-ups to the launch of the Release 17 specification and the release of new 5G silicon. With an ongoing global pandemic causing numerous chip shortages, this could prove to be a tall order.

Challenges ahead

Even as the latest 5G devices start to arrive on the market it is not yet clear exactly which companies will put up compatible satellite constellations to serve direct connection needs, ABI’s Mavrakis tells EE Times in an email reply to questions. Although the analyst does cite the aforementioned Lynk Global and AST SpaceMobile as probable early contenders to launch direct connection satellite swarms.

“There are several challenges to make this happen,” Mavrakis writes. “For example, the link budget may be very stringent for a direct connection between the satellite and a normal smartphone handset.” There are also system and data sovereignty issues to be considered for a satellite operation, the analyst contends. Data sovereignty will obviously be a huge concern for a network that sends data to and from space.

“It’s not clear what the role of the mobile operator will be in this system, which may delay things even further,” the ABI analyst states. This is largely true, although Japanese MNO SoftBank Corp has already started to lay out its own Non-Terrestrial Networks (NTN) strategy to serve customers far beyond the confines of its home market. So, this may be the start of a new wave of extra-terrestrial operator strategy, at least for forward-thinking MNOs.

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