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Update on 5G Non-Terrestrial Networks Briefing Paper

Satellites can enhance 5G networks by solving coverage and challenging use cases beyond ground-based infrastructure. By mid-2023, Non-terrestrial Networks (NTN) is a thriving market with diverse technical and commercial strategies. 5G NTN delivers high-speed wireless access to remote areas, utilizing satellites on the mobile network’s access side to provide ground users with mobile services.

Update on 5G Non-Terrestrial Networks” examines the growing ecosystem of providers and partnerships between NTN service providers and ground-based cellular providers. In addition, it highlights satellite constellations operating in three key domains: broadband and Internet services, Internet of Things connectivity, and Direct-to-Cell applications.

Some key topics surrounding NTN networks in this 5G Americas report include:

  • Current status of NTN networks
  • Architectural paradigms update
  • 5G NTN standardization in 3GPP
  • New Radio (NR), and IoT support NTN in Release 17
  • NTN enhancements in 3GPP Release 18
  • Potential for new services with 3GPP NTN solution
  • Federal Communications Commission activities related to NTN
  • Recommendations & conclusions

Today, the integration of 3GPP smartphones with NTN paves the way for exciting advancements in 5G NTN standards. These developments within 3GPP hold tremendous potential to amplify the efficiency and capabilities of LEO satellites, presenting a wealth of opportunities for emerging 5G NTN ecosystems.

Executive Summary

As of the first half of 2023, Non-terrestrial Networks (NTN) is becoming a highly dynamic market with a few different technical and commercial approaches. At the same time, the emergence of 5G technology has opened new possibilities for connecting people and devices across the world with unprecedented speed and reliability. A 5G NTN is designed to provide high speed wireless connectivity to remote and underserved locations, by leveraging a ‘space segment’ in the access side of the mobile network to deliver mobile services to users on the ground from satellites.

Today broadband connections are already offered by several NTN operators with proprietary technology, using VSAT/dish antennas at the user equipment for reception of broadband speeds on Ka or Ku frequencies. Most of the focus in NTN deployments is on the use of GEO and LEO satellites, with the most common approach for GEO satellites (around 36,000 km altitude) to be used for fixed broadband and IoT (i.e., for non-delay-critical services), whereas LEO-s (less than 1,000km altitude) are more attractive for their low delay and better link budget due to the much lower distance.

The use of NTN technology has numerous potential use-cases for IoT applications, which can be served from both Low Earth Orbit (LEO) or Geostationary (GEO) satellites, particularly in remote and hard-to-reach areas. For example, precision agriculture systems can leverage real-time data from sensors placed on unmanned aerial vehicles to optimize crop yields and reduce resource waste. Similarly, remote monitoring and control of critical infrastructure such as oil rigs, wind turbines, and mining sites can be made more efficient and secure with the help of NTN-enabled sensors and actuators.

Direct-to-cellular device services are also emerging, offering emergency and messaging services with the promise to evolve to higher speeds over LEO networks. With a 3GPP-based NTN solution in Release-17 using the sub-2Ghz band spectrum, it is possible to achieve tens of megabits per second speed in the downlink (although this peak speed will be shared among all users in a given cell), as well as a round trip delay in the range of a few tens of milliseconds. With 3GPP Rel- 18 additional spectrum in Ka band will offer much higher speed – to the order of hundreds of Mbps – to non-handheld devices using small dish antennas, similar to that offered by SpaceX’s Starlink service. Practical speed will vary depending on device capability, spectrum utilized, load and antenna sizes. Furthermore, NTN can be used for disaster response and recovery operations by providing reliable and resilient communication links in areas affected by natural disasters. In any of these scenarios the remarkable outcome of satellite D2C is the expansion of coverage for current and future consumer cellphones in hard to reach and remote or rural areas, to an extent a terrestrial network cannot achieve.

More information on the central concepts of non-terrestrial networks can be found in 5G and Non-Terrestrial Networks.

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