5G over satellite is coming. Last December, the satellite and telecoms industries, through the overarching 3GPP standards development organisation, committed to the future convergence of terrestrial and non-terrestrial telecommunications networks (NTN) . This will create an extended open 5G ecosystem in which satellite, other non-terrestrial and mobile network operators will be able to cooperate — or compete — to offer global connectivity to subscribers.
While 5G convergence creates new opportunities, above all the provision of global hybrid 5G connectivity, it also begs the perennial question of how players in a market built upon open standards will be able to differentiate themselves from existing and new competitors. In this series of blog posts, we explore the probable shape of the future ecosystem of network operators and other players that provide the functionality and infrastructure of the 5G “network of networks”.
In this first instalment of the series, we envisage a world of “total convergence” where satellite operators wholeheartedly embrace the 5G open standards for all future air interface and core network functionality. In such a world, we suggest, network operators will extract competitive advantage by doubling-down their investments into a winning combination of spectrum assets, satellite constellations with advantageous physical orbit characteristics and a payload evolution strategy that will deliver best-in-class 5G connectivity and services as the 5G standard develops.
First, to be clear, in the world we are considering satellite terminals will be wholly undifferentiated with respect to the 5G NTN air interface. 5G convergence will bring down the cost of satellite handsets and terminals, because the development cost of modem chipsets and other components will be amortised over a much larger number of subscribers. Satellite operators will rely increasingly upon the wider 5G ecosystem to deliver ever more commoditized core network and terminals; and redeploy their investment capital elsewhere. A variety of multiband radio front ends and antennas will be optimised for different satellite services such as IoT, voice/messaging, low-cost broadband, and other services, but much of the technology that was proprietary to satellite network operators, i.e. terminals and secure networks, may be accessed through an extended 5G ecosystem. Satellite operators will have to concentrate on other metrics to differentiate themselves from competitors.
The most pertinent question around orbit configuration is whether LEO orbits can really be positioned to command a premium for low latency connectivity services. Gaming and financial services are two clear targets, alongside certain industrial 4.0 IoT applications. This will create an investment appetite to build a highly converged core network with best-in-class fibre and satellite links to deliver a superior service experience.
For mass market wideband applications that are latency tolerant e.g. fixed consumer broadband, it is still difficult to see a future where NGSO tracking antenna can compete toe-to-toe with the simplicity and system efficiency/cost of a GEO panel or dish, implying that the competitive status quo will prevail.
The jury is out in regard to broadband mobility and narrowband fixed/mobile IoT applications — with neither GEO nor NGSO orbits holding a clear advantage. Perhaps this is the arena in which the fiercest battles will be fought.
In the fully converged world of 5G, sub 6GHz satellite spectrum becomes the preserve of narrowband NTN-IoT services (e.g. agritech), traditional voice/messaging and certain specialist mobility verticals (e.g. low data rate maritime connectivity) although sub 6GHz broadcast services also garner the potential to reach a very large number of 5G subscribers.
Outside these markets, sub 6GHz will have perhaps been repurposed wherever technically/commercially feasible, to serve terrestrial broadband capacity. Meanwhile Ku and Ka spectrum becomes ever more concentrated on serving NTN broadband use cases, competing on the traditional basis of cost and capacity.
Thus, we are describing a world where each market segment becomes increasingly polarized around the winning combination of satellite spectrum strategy plus orbit configuration, because in the world of commodity 5G NTN waveforms, these two metrics do still enable satellite operators to differentiate themselves from one another.
The final dominant axis of competition between 5G NTN operators will be degree of sophistication in a satellite communication payload.
Not only will there be pressure to continually evolve payload capability to keep pace with the next 3GPP feature release, but the capability to intelligently manage high-bandwidth spotbeams and finite power resources will be a competitive advantage, even if satellite operators are all using identical waveforms. As an aside, there are ongoing discussion within 3GPP regarding the use of more power-efficient downlink waveforms for 5G NTN, but this is yet to be resolved.
Irrespective of which waveforms need to be supported, 5G satellite technology vendors will need to develop highly power-efficient software defined platforms to gain a competitive edge. It is quite possible that vendors in the 5G satellite industry of tomorrow will ultimately pay the same level of attention to power reduction on the satellite payload, as do the mobile chipset vendors of today. This is especially true of nanosatellites with very limited power budget, and we could even see a transfer of skills from the mobile chipset industry into satcom to help make it happen.
Arguably, LEO orbits could derive some competitive advantage by ensuring that the constellation can always access the very latest payload technology.
In this future world of total convergence, satellite operators will have to pay more attention to bringing together winning combinations of satellite orbit, spectrum and highly competitive payloads, in order to compete for certain 5G verticals and win as many subscribers as possible.
In future instalments of this series, we will consider other players in the extended 5G ecosystem (such as ground stations, data centres and terminal vendors) and the role of services that may be offered to subscribers.