CMMA17: Satellite still has a role to play in 5G

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SATELLITE OF 5G LOVE: Terry Bleakley, Intelsat’s regional VP of APAC Sales. makes the case for satellite as a key 5G player.

Satellite may not be the sexiest of technologies at a time when the telecoms industry is obsessed with 5G, but satellite companies are fully prepared to be a relevant part of that ecosystem, insists Intelsat.

During the broadband stream of the CommunicAsia2017 summit on Wednesday, Terry Bleakley – Intelsat’s regional VP of APAC Sales – asserted satellite’s ability to play in the 5G space despite its reputation as a last-resort and expensive option for rural cellular backhaul, especially regarding the space segment. Bleakley said these “myths” are fading fast in the face of recent developments in satellite technology.

For example, the rise of high-throughput satellites (HTS) means satellites are capable of not only handling high-speed broadband traffic, but also delivering a much lower cost per megabit and more efficient use of spectrum, which also means lower opex costs for operators.

That’s not just theory. During Intelsat’s speaking slot, Shams Arfeen – CEO of Pakistan service provider and systems integrator Supernet – explained how connecting 3G cellular towers to Intelsat 33e (its HTS bird that went into service in February) helped it reduce spectrum utilization from 130.5 MHz to 72 MHz, whilst boosting throughput speeds from 6 Mbps per Hz to 11 Mbps per Hz – all using the exact same equipment as the old cellular backhaul solution.

Meanwhile, companies like Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin are promising to make space launches more competitive and less expensive.

Bleakley acknowledged that Musk, Bezos and other disruptive entrepreneurs like Richard Branson, Mark Zuckerberg and SoftBank’s Masayoshi Son are the new innovators driving the future direction of satellite. “These guys are very influential and bring growth and money to the industry,” he said.

Meanwhile, innovation is happening at the constellation level as new companies develop medium and low-earth orbit constellations that will complement existing geostationary satellites, he added.

For example, LEOsat player OneWeb – which recently received a $1 billion investment from SoftBank – is planning a global LEO constellation featuring 18 planes of 36 inexpensive satellites. “The use of multiple planes means that urban canyons aren’t a barrier to line of sight, which has been a problem for older LEO satellite systems,” Bleakley said.

And because LEOsats are only 900km from Earth (vs 36,000km for GEOsats), latency for broadband links can be reduced from the 520ms you get with GEOsats to less than 35ms – which gives cellular backhaul customers an option for managing low-latency traffic, Bleakley added. “Latency-sensitive traffic can be routed to the LEO, and the rest can go to the GEO.”

(Satellite operator SES is already doing this, although not with LEOsats. Earlier this week, it announced a hybrid connectivity platform that combines its GEOsat fleet with its O3b Networks MEOsat fleet. Palau Telecoms is using the platform to expand its Internet connectivity services.)

More to the point, Bleakley continued, “OneWeb is being designed around 5G architecture and interoperability with existing LTE networks.”

In essence, then, the case for satellite as a 5G player is that it already does cellular backhaul; next-gen technologies are bringing satellite connectivity costs down significantly; LEOsats will enable far better latency performance; and when OneWeb launches, it will launch 5G-ready.

One potential drawback is that the 35ms latency promised by OneWeb and other LEOsat players is still way short of the benchmarks in proposed 5G standards that call for latency as low as 1ms for critical communications like self-driving cars, for instance.

Because satellite operators are limited by physics, the alternative is to influence standards development, which is just what Intelsat is doing, Bleakley said.

“We’re talking with the 3GPP and other standards bodies to develop a 5G standard that allows for satellite operators to be part of the 5G ecosystem,” he said. “We’re working on that and trying to incorporate those latency figures into the standard so it takes LEO satellite backhaul into account.”

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