5G is set to transform our lives radically. If 4G was largely about a higher throughput and capacity, 5G is expected to push these boundaries further to enable newer types of applications and services across different verticals such as health, transport, entertainment, machine-to-machine communication and security. Unlike 4G networks, which largely focused on terrestrial communication, 5G networks are expected to factor in all kinds of telecom infrastructure, including satellites. According to data and analytics firm GlobalData, by augmenting 5G mobile networks with next-generation satellite capabilities, satellite operators will get the opportunity to become major players in the emerging 5G ecosystem.
Notably, in the past few years, there have been some significant improvements in the technical performance and capabilities of satellite technology, which have made it much more competitive with terrestrial networks. The next-generation high throughput satellites (HTS) are built on open architectures and will be much more flexible and easier to integrate with 5G infrastructure. In the 5G era, HTS is expected to bring in increased capacity along with improved performance. This can be attributed to spot beam technology, which reuses high frequency across multiple narrowly focused spot beams, usually offering coverage in the range of hundreds of kilometres. These satellites are also capable of providing an average bandwidth from hundreds of Gbps up to more than 1 Tbps from each orbital location.
Broadly, satellites enjoy some benefits over terrestrial solutions, making their case stronger in the 5G era. One of them is the capability to cover entire geographic regions by using a minimum amount of infrastructure on the ground. The other is its intrinsic broadcast nature and capability, which enable satellites to deliver the same content to a very large number of network nodes and user devices scattered across a broad geographic area, with unparalleled efficiency.
The biggest scope for satellite communication (satcom) in a 5G network is in the backhaul segment. Satellites can be used for offloading in this segment to support terrestrial 5G solutions. Another opportunity is that satellites can take 5G to areas where terrestrial connectivity companies consider it too expensive to install optic fibre cables.
According to industry leaders, 5G networks will require about three to five times more base stations than 4G networks to cover the same geographic area. This can be another opportunity for satellites. The ability of satellites to cover large areas will minimise the requirement for a large number of base stations.
The Electronic Communications Committee (ECC), in its report on satellite solutions for 5G, has identified four use cases for satellite-based solutions in 5G in terms of scale. The first use case is communications on the move, wherein high speed connectivity is provided to planes, trains and vessels, and in streaming unicast as well as multicast on-demand content across a large coverage area. An example of this use case is in-flight connectivity. The second use case is hybrid multiplay, which is about providing high speed connectivity to individual homes and offices, with the ability to multicast the same content (video as well as other non-video data) across a large coverage area or unicast the same to individual users or devices. In hybrid multiplay, smart antennas make use of satellite connectivity and hybrid network management to add flexibility to networks and provide direct connectivity to end users. The third use case is trunking and head-end feed, which is about high speed trunking of video, internet of things (IoT) and other data to the central site, with further terrestrial distribution to local cell sites in the neighbouring villages. This use case can provide broadband coverage to remote areas during natural disasters and serve as a backup connectivity option in times of emergency. The fourth use case is backhauling and tower feed, which involves providing high speed backhaul connectivity to individual cells along with the ability to multicast the same content across a large coverage area. The examples of this use case include providing efficient broadcast service to end users and efficient broadcast delivery (live broadcast, ad hoc broadcast, etc.) to the network edge.
The way forward
With the commercial roll-out of 5G just around the corner, next-generation satellites are expected to become an integral part in ensuring that 5G benefits are made available everywhere. There is an increasing interest and participation in the Third Generation Partnership Project from the satcom industry, with companies and organisations convinced about the market potential of an integrated satellite and terrestrial network infrastructure in the context of 5G.