Qualcomm, Ericsson, Thales are working on delivering 5G from orbit

Tech expected to provide coverage anywhere and everywhere, but smartphones are not yet compatible

Wireless chipmaker Qualcomm is working with Ericsson and Thales on technology that could deliver a 5G telecommunications service from low Earth orbit satellites.

Such a network is intended to provide complete global coverage for telecoms, including places typically served only by legacy satellite phone systems, the companies told us.

This collaboration follows the approval in March for satellite-driven 5G non-terrestrial networks (5G NTNs) in Release 17 of the 5G specifications from the 3GPP telecommunications standards body, giving the go-ahead for development.

The trio said they have separately conducted detailed research, including multiple studies and simulations, which led to a decision to move forwards to use-case-focused testing and validation of 5G non-terrestrial networks. In other words, they are still researching the technology to see if this can be made to work.

According to Ericsson, it is too early at this stage to even say when a prototype 5G-equipped satellite may be launched to test out the technology.

Development of the satellite could be done quite rapidly, Ericsson told us, but the next step would include putting one or more into space and this depends on external factors, meaning a timescale cannot be accurately estimated at this point.

Ericsson senior VP and CTO Erik Ekudden claimed in a statement that if successful, this project will be a major milestone in the history of communications.

"The ultimate result could effectively mean that no matter where you are on Earth – in the middle of an ocean or the remotest forest – high-end, secure and cost-effective connectivity will be available through collaborative 5G satellite and terrestrial connectivity."

The benefits of a 5G service delivered by satellite include the obvious use cases of coverage in remote areas where there is no terrestrial network coverage. Other benefits, according to the troika of companies, include global connectivity for transportation, energy and health sector 5G use cases, plus the ability to serve as a backup for terrestrial networks in the event of major network outages or a disaster.

The official announcement hints that national government agencies may be major potential customers for any low Earth orbit satellite service because of the "expected security capabilities" of 5G non-terrestrial networks.

According to the three companies, their testing will validate the various technology components needed for 5G NTNs, including a 5G smartphone, the satellite technology and the ground-based infrastructure.

Ericsson's role in the project is to deliver a 5G radio access network (RAN) stack, modified to operate with radio waves traveling between the ground and fast-moving low Earth orbit satellites instead of a nearby base station.

Thales is developing a 5G radio transceiver suitable for deployment on low Earth orbit satellites, while Qualcomm will provide test handsets that will verify that the network can be accessed by future 5G smartphones.

A key phrase here is "future smartphones." Will a 5G NTN be compatible with existing handsets, or will it require hardware that means only future devices would have access it? We put this to Ericsson and Qualcomm, and an Ericsson spokesperson told us that it would need Release 17 5G handsets that have the NTN components in them, meaning support would have to come in future devices.

"Our current view is that the cost of adding this capability will be low," the spokesperson said. "It is mainly a software addition, and of course a new filter for the satellite band. Then we will see if how well the 2GHz antennas that are in there today work. We may find that we need to exchange this with a new improved internal antenna."

The companies claimed that 5G NTNs will make use of the existing ecosystem of standardized products and components, which will allow technology vendors to scale the technology across devices.

Kester Mann, director for consumer and connectivity at CCS Insight, told us that while satellite 5G has great potential, it could also prove a risky endeavor.

"Beyond cost, there are major questions over performance, regulation and governance. Companies need to think carefully how much they are prepared to commit," he said.

The prospect of built-in satellite connectivity in smartphones is also likely to be some way off, according to Mann, because of the affect this might have on device size and battery life, and because of line-of-sight requirements.

Nevertheless, Mann added: "It's no surprise to see industry heavyweights ... seeking to get involved in one of the telecoms industry's most exciting new areas. Satellite broadband could connect hundreds of millions of people in the most remote parts of the world." ®

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