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What’s Ahead for 5G Non-Terrestrial Networks?

Chris Pearson, July 2023 – 

Since our trade association started in 2002 as 3G Americas, we’ve been focused on building a community of supporters for wireless cellular technology in the Americas. We’re proud to release our “Update on 5G Non-Terrestrial Networks,” which is a great snapshot of the progress and future direction on satellite and other non-terrestrial technologies as they integrate with today’s wireless cellular networks. This update builds on our very popular February 2022 white paper, “5G and Non-Terrestrial Networks”.

For a trade association that began by working with Earth-bound “terrestrial” network operators with radios on cell towers, our relationship with the sky-based telecom ecosystem has always been an interesting one. For decades, the promise of ubiquitous wireless coverage without any coverage gaps has always tantalized the marketplace. While satellite has always been able to provide good coverage from the skies above, the cost and complexity of satellite launches, integration of networks and interoperability of handheld devices have always been challenges to its potential. In 2023, there are several broadband and satellite providers serving the market, including but not limited to the following:

Major Broadband and satellite providers 2023 

Operator  Satellite system (Deployed)  Spectrum  Technology  Operational  Services 
SpaceX (Starlink)  12000+ (3580)  Ku-band  Proprietary  Yes  Broadband  
OneWeb  648 (542)  Ku-band  Proprietary  TBD  Broadband  
Kuiper  3236 (0)  Ka band  Proprietary  Estimated 2024  Broadband  
Galaxy Space  1000 (7)  Q/V spectrum  Proprietary  TBD  Broadband  
Boeing  147 NGSO (1)  V band  Proprietary  TBD  TBD 
Inmarsat  14 GEO (14)  TBD  Proprietary  TBD  Broadband to IoT 
Telesat  188 (2)  C, Ku, Ka bands  Proprietary  TBD  Broadband  
Echostar  10 GEO (10)  Ku, Ka, S bands  Proprietary  Yes  Broadband 
HughesNet  3 GEO (2)  Ka band  Proprietary  Yes  Broadband  
Viasat  4 GEO (4)  Ka band  Proprietary  Yes  Broadband  

But as the cost of satellite launches seems to have gone down, satellite operators are increasingly seeing the benefit of connecting with terrestrial 5G networks to access the massive scale that wireless cellular communications can bring. Indeed, there are now over 703 ‘Long-Term Evolution’ (LTE) or ‘4G LTE’ networks serving a staggering 7.86 billion connections, according to data from Omdia – that’s nearly one LTE connection for every person on the planet. Even more importantly, there are now 1.2 billion 5G connections around the world, a number which we expect to reach 6.8 billion in 2027, only four years away.

In 2022, the telecommunications industry began to see a flurry of several high-profile partnerships (shown below) which highlighted the possible recognition of a simple fact: satellite operators could see the benefit of access to a global wireless marketplace that 5G standards bring to the table, and terrestrial network operators possibly see the benefit of ubiquitous coverage without gaps, even in the most remote parts of the planet. Several of these announcements related to ‘direct-to-cell’ (D2C) communications, where NTN operators would be able to connect their customers directly to 5G networks to offer emergency and messaging services, eliminating the need for a bulky and satellite phone. 

It’s a match made between Earth and the skies above.

Major IoT/D2C partnerships 2023 

Operator 

Satellite System (deployed) 

Spectrum 

Technology 

Operational 

Services 

T-Mobile/ SpaceX 

2016 LEO (0) 

MNO spectrum 

3GPP-Rel12 

2024 

Messaging, Data, Voice, Video 

AT&T/AST 

243 LEO (1) 

MNO spectrum 

 3GPP-Rel12 

2024 

Messaging, Data, Voice, Video 

Verizon/Kuiper 

3236(0) 

Ka band 

Proprietary 

TBD 

Ground sites backhaul – LTE and 5G 

Apple/ Globalstar 

24 LEO 

L-band, S-band 

Proprietary 

4Q2022 

Emergency Messaging 

Qualcomm/ Iridium 

66 LEO 

L-band 

Proprietary 

4H2023 

Messaging 

Mediatek/Skylo/ Bullitt 

6 GEO (Inmarsat) 

L-band 

3GPP-NTN 

1Q2023 

Messaging 

Skylo/Ligado/ Viasat  

1 GEO (Ligado) 

L-band 

3GPP-NTN  

2H2023 

NB-IoT, Messaging, LDR  

Just as 5G networks have opened up to new partnerships in other technologies like cloud computing with hyperscalers, or increasingly adopted and incorporated AI into operations, our industry is reaching out to connect many different players and technologies, folding functionality into each new successive release of 3GPP standards. We’ve come a long way from the days of the old GSM/CDMA/TDMA debate, which had splintered the world’s telecommunications companies and consumers into three well-divergent camps.

Analog 1G systems only allowed for voice communications back when paging systems were popular for messaging.  In those early days of paging systems, a lot of our communications relied on short messages, which did not require much data throughput.  

As wireless cellular communications grew, the greater spectrum bandwidths and improved management of network latencies have allowed for many more services to be offered. From 2G to 5G, we slowly went from texting to voice (low throughput / stringent network latency) to video (high throughput / less stringent network latency) to streaming video (high throughput / stringent latency). Indeed, 5G networks standards theoretically can offer up to 10 Gbps downloads, sub 10 millisecond network latencies, and management of up to a million devices per square kilometer. It is those last two capabilities, that offer both NTN operators and 5G companies an even grander target: the Internet of Things (IoT).

Today, there are several dedicated NTN operators that serve the IoT and Direct-to-Cell market. This list is not exhaustive of every possible Iot/D2C but does highlight many in this ecosystem. They include:

Major NTN IoT/D2C service providers 2023 

Operator 

Satellite System (deployed) 

Spectrum 

Technology 

Operational 

Services 

SpaceX 

2016 LEO (0) 

MNO spectrum/ 2GHz MSS 

Pre Rel-17 3GPP 

2024 

Messaging, speech, broadband 

AST SpaceMobile 

243 LEO (1) 

MNO spectrum 

Pre Rel-17 3GPP 

2024 

Messaging, speech, broadband 

Lynk 

5000 LEO (3) 

MNO spectrum 

Pre Rel-17 3GPP 

2Q2023 

Messaging, LDR (low-data rate)  

Sateliot 

250 LEO (1) 

 2.0GHz MSS 

Rel-17 NB-IoT (NB-NTN) 

TBD 

NB-IoT  

Iridium 

66 LEO 

L-band 

Proprietary 

Yes 

LDR/ Messaging 

Orbcomm 

31 LEO 

137-150 MHz 

Proprietary 

Yes 

Assets tracking 

GlobalStar 

24 LEO 

L/S-band 

Proprietary 

Yes 

Assets tracking 

Ligado 

1 GEO 

L-band 

Rel-17 NB-IoT (NB-NTN) 

TBD 

NB-IoT 


NTN operators are witnessing the strength of the 5G New Radio standard – its massive adoption and continuing technology evolution. Indeed, 3GPP Release 17 has a lot of support for new services, technologies, and spectrum for NTN deployments. They include improvements for time and frequency synchronization, enhancements for HARQ (Hybrid Automatic Repeat Request) and RACH (Random Access Channel), mobility support, new NTN spectrum bands, NTN-specific system information blocks (SIB).

Already, downlink speeds in the tens of Mbps may enable services beyond IoT, text or emergency calls, such as video calling. Indeed, a recent success of a satellite-to-4G LTE network test that connected an off-the-shelf mobile device via satellite shows how quickly operators are adopting these technologies. With additional tests underway for 5G networks, we can expect more ongoing enhancements to 5G NTN design in Rel-18, as well as the US Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) Space Bureau approving new rules on spectrum sharing and coordination among space-based operators.

For over twenty years, the dream of worldwide seamless wireless connectivity on mobile devices has been a sort of Holy Grail for our industry. We are getting closer each day towards achieving this. While the physics of wireless may never allow us to achieve full 100% coverage everywhere, the industry key stakeholders are working hard to bring the world together under a wonderful umbrella of connectivity. Cheers to what the future will bring.

-Chris

Find out more about Non-Terrestrial and 5G Networks

'Update on 5G Non-Terrestrial Networks' delves into the companies, partnerships, services, and technologies that are changing the face of wireless communications.

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