5G is satellite’s best (and last) chance to join the mobile ecosystem

5G satellite
Image credit: Yurchanka Siarhei / Shutterstock.com

Satellite players have always looked for ways to stay relevant in the mobile era. But aside from expensive satellite handsets and rural cellular backhaul, it’s been tough going. And you’d be forgiven for thinking that it’s going to get tougher with 5G on the horizon – 5G requires not only much faster low-latency backhaul but also extra spectrum, which regulators have been providing in part by encroaching on satellite bands such as 3.5 GHz.

But have no fear, says GlobalData. Satellite operators actually have a grand opportunity to become a major player in the emerging 5G ecosystem – or at least the operators with next-gen high throughput satellites (HTS) at their disposal.

Satellite has been trying to crack the broadband internet market for years, but has been relegated to a supplemental last-resort option simply because in terms of speed and latency (the latter being the product of physics), satellite broadband can’t compete with even the slowest terrestrial options. Traditionally, if you have ADSL-level connectivity or above, you’ve generally got better connectivity than the average satellite broadband modem. Even the cellular backhaul business was challenging because it takes a lot of effort to integrate satellite connectivity into 3G and 4G networks, and the spacelink cost per megabit isn’t cheap.

But satellite’s mobile broadband fortune is changing, says Glen Hunt, GlobalData’s principal analyst for telecom technology and software, partly because satellite technology is improving, and partly because the full 5G network spec being developed by the 3GPP and slated for finalization in the next few months is being designed to support satellite integration:

“The next generations of satellites [HTS] are being built on open architectures. They are much more flexible and easier to integrate into 5G networks. With HTS, satellite operators can expand beyond rural broadband and become an integral part of the 5G ecosystem.

“HTS deployments are going to be dramatically less expensive than prior generations of satellite due to a combination of factors including new advances in launch vehicles, miniaturization of components and correspondingly lower power consumption.”

Hunt also points out that regulators are keen on a 5G/satellite combo option and are looking for ways to clear spectrum to enable it:

For example, the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) recently granted the application of Higher Ground for a blanket earth station license to operate up to 50,000 earth stations, known as ‘SatPaqs,’ to communicate with the multiple US-licensed satellites.

The satellite sector – which has never been happy with regulatory decisions regarding terrestrial spectrum allocations that threaten to interfere with their existing bands – has nevertheless been talking up the upsides of 5G for some time now as a way for satellite players to finally find a home in the mobile ecosystem.

At last year’s CommunicAsia conference in Singapore, Intelsat’s regional VP of APAC sales Terry Bleakley made the case for satellite’s role in 5G, pointed out that HTS birds are cheaper to build, launch and operate, use spectrum more efficiently and deliver a much lower cost per megabit, all of which make satellite backhaul a viable option for 5G. Then there’s the next wave of LEOsat projects such as SoftBank-backed OneWeb and Elon Musk’s SpaceX that will not only be hella fast, but also bring latency down dramatically.

Challenges do remain for GEOsat HTS operators, however – namely, the fact that mobile operators will likely still prefer terrestrial backhaul options, if only out of habit. That said, with fiber pegged as a minimum backhaul requirement for 5G, satellite still has to compete with that benchmark in terms of performance, reliability and cost. Also, with 5G’s initial deployments being confined to dense urban centers – where fiber is generally available – cellular backhaul via satellite might still remain primarily a rural play, which suggests the 5G-related opportunities may be limited to operators who want to roll out 5G in those areas.

Even so, says GlobalData’s Hunt, an opportunity is an opportunity, and the parallel arrivals of 5G and HTS represent satellite’s best chance to join hands with mobile:

“The timing may be just right – open network architectures, coupled by a broad spirit of cooperation between satellite, wireless and fixed operators may help usher in the next wave of satellite communications.”

In other words, the mobile stars are finally aligning for satellite, and they’d better take advantage of it now, because this is as good as it gets, and it won’t get this good again.

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