It’s getting tight in orbit: if the research partners Ericsson, Thales and Qualcomm have their way, there will soon be 5G mobile communications directly from satellites.
With the progressive specification of the 5G standard, new application scenarios are emerging into view. One approach is the direct networking of end devices on earth via a satellite network. The necessary technical requirements are taken into account with the ongoing further development of the radio interface (5G New Radio) in Releases 17 and 18 of the standard and specified as 5G NTN (Non-Terrestial Networks).
The Swedish network supplier Ericsson is working together with US chip manufacturer Qualcomm and French aerospace company Thales on a research project for 5G NTN. The goal: A network of satellites in a comparatively low orbit around the earth can also provide lonely areas and the oceans with a fast mobile connection.
Fallback for network failure
In addition to better coverage Such a network would also offer an alternative in the event of a disaster when terrestrial network components are offline, for example due to a power failure. However, the partner companies also see a “main application” in the secure communication of governments and security authorities.
A satellite network in low-earth orbit between 150 and around 2000 kilometers above the earth’s surface is to be used. After initial simulations and studies, the partners now want to develop and test the technology required for such a network. The first tests are to take place “in an emulated space environment” at Thales in France.
Core components include satellite-compatible 5G smartphones and the technology in the satellites themselves, which Thales is developing. Ericsson is testing a modified 5G virtual RAN stack (vRAN) that is tailored to the special conditions of radio waves in space and their propagation via very fast-moving satellites. Qualcomm contributes the end devices. One of the questions is whether 5G NTN components also fit into the common smartphone form factors.
Dry runs on the ground
So far, these are all dry runs. It is still unclear whether the partners will also test the process with a satellite in orbit. “It is still too early to say when a 5G-equipped prototype satellite could be launched into orbit,” explains Ericsson CTO Erik Ekudden. But ongoing validation on the ground is “the key to realizing it”.
So far, there is already satellite-based communication for phones. In addition, satellite connections are already being used in some places to connect terrestrial mobile phone masts in remote regions. Here, the end devices connect to a base station on the ground in the classic way. With 5G NTN, there should be a direct connection between the end device and the satellite.
With the ongoing work on Release 17 and Release 18 of the 5G standard at the standardization organization 3GPP, the special features of satellite communication for 5G NTN are being specified. In doing so, the radio interface is modified for long distances and other physical conditions.
In low orbit around the earth, things get pretty cramped. Elon Musk’s Starlink project is already up and running. Providers such as TeleSat OneWeb or Amazon Kuiper also want to bring the Internet to every corner of the world with so-called mass constellations of satellites.