Ronald van der Breggen on 5G and satellites

LEO satellites have been touted as the answer to the world’s increasing need for more connectivity. Ronald van der Breggen, CCO of LeoSat about the opportunities for satellite, particularly the new LEO satellite systems, in developing 5G networks.
Ronald van der Breggen, CCO, LeoSat Enterprises

With data traffic predicted to increase four-fold by 2020 to four ZB per year, one of the key challenges for the mobility sector is achieving scalable, flexible solutions for their expanding networks. Backhaul for mobile networks is crucial to ensure speed and capacity for data transportation from distributed network sites to the network core. Now with the new developments in satellite constellations, next generation low earth orbit systems claim they can provide the guaranteed level of connectivity, resilience and security required by 5G for significant sectors of industry.

How do you see the development of 5G networks?

5G is set to radically transform our lives and major network architecture changes are already taking place to accompany this shift. Traditionally, telecom networks use satellite services to extend coverage into more remote areas – where connectivity with local or international carriers isn’t available. However, as bandwidth demand increases and technology in the areas of microwave solutions, optical fiber and satellites further develops, telecom operators are now evaluating alternative solutions.

With the ever-increasing demand for data, from enterprise, end-users and now increasingly by devices, it’s not just bandwidth that is required, but there is a new element – the demand for density. Mobile Network Operators (MNOs) have been at the forefront of these developments in the past decade and their requirements have grown significantly as a result, with low latency rapidly becoming key.

With the first steps toward 4G predominantly driven by the need for data applications and video services on mobile devices, moving to 5G is largely driven by the need to connect more devices in support of IoT and with that, mission critical networks and requirements for command and control for remote sites, thus fueling the need for low latency.

We see the move towards 5G signifying a trend that mobile networks are becoming more and more an extension of the wide area and local area networks that are in use today. After all, it is not only about adding more users and supporting more data applications on more devices, it is increasingly about developing enterprise grade services and an expectation that its performance will be as good or better when compared to its wired equivalents.

What are the opportunities for satellite operators?

MNOs are preparing to upgrade their networks to the new 5G standards, including the set-up of pilot sites with suppliers to test the capabilities and promote them to their customers. New features in the 5G standard, however, make this a larger endeavour than before. More use cases and service types need to be developed and tested in support of high-speed, fast moving customers as well as servicing dense footprints with many IoT devices.

For satellite operators, ideally positioned as a “network of networks” service provider, these developments provide a clear opportunity to expand their backhaul services and adopt the technology to seamlessly integrate these mobile networks into terrestrial network configurations. All this supports the business case to proceed with expanding the HTS capacity in space.

What gives LEO operators an advantage over traditional players when it comes to 5G?

First of all, it provides them with a unique opportunity to position their services characterised by very low latency. Their lower orbits put them in a unique position within the mobile 5G developments, where low latency is at the very heart of the new standards development. Secondly, in leveraging these low latency capabilities, there seem to be different go-to-market approaches among LEO operators. Some are looking to provide 5G services directly to end customers in a business model to “Connect the Unconnected”. Others envision a reseller model, supporting terrestrial and mobile telecom operators in expanding their infrastructure into maritime or more remote areas.

On the technical side, there are a number of initiatives to bring players closer together in developing the satellite infrastructure aspect of 5G. In Europe, the European Space Agency (ESA) has set up a satellite industry working group to develop a stronger integration of 5G between terrestrial and satellite telecom operators. Through the “Satellite for 5G Initiative”, ESA and the European space industry are joining forces to develop and showcase the added value that satellite brings in the context of 5G. They will collaborate on 5G service trials using satellite, with a focus on those vertical sectors for which 5G will be highly relevant, such as transport, media & entertainment, and public safety. While focusing on these markets, there are activities in the areas of application development, standardisation, resource management, interoperability and other supporting technologies.

As such, the ESA-led initiative supports a seamless integration of satellite and terrestrial networks as an integral part of the 5G system.

How does satellite fit into the 5G ecosystem?

One significant bit is backhaul for telecom operators. Expanding MNOs’ service area into territories where terrestrial services are not available will continue to be an important use case in the 5G area. These requirements for mobile backhauling will continue to increase as the 5G platform is expected to carry a lot more traffic than 3G and 4G. Current satellite technology focusing on higher throughput (HTS) and/or lower latency (MEO/LEO constellations) are better suited to address this requirement than traditional satellites.

The other element is public safety or red- and blue-light service operators, who have traditionally operated with voice-based communication systems and narrowband data services. However, it has become evident that these operators are able to provide a much better service level and are able to respond faster using high speed broadband data services and applications. These requirements are starting to come to the forefront and we’re already seeing national procurement/implementation projects active in this area.

There there is communications on the move. Cruise vessels, aircraft and trains offer WiFi services to their customers to satisfy their requirement for connectivity. For remote, maritime or scarcely populated areas, satellite services are one of few, if not the only platform that can provide these services. 5G will not only bring the required additional bandwidth, but with low latency features, more applications can be supported and all devices can be operated as part of a network with similar performance characteristics to a wired equivalent.

Cars also have their own specific use case. On board entertainment, remote monitoring and control, and remote updates for maintenance purposes are similar compared to other transportation use cases. What is very different though is the advent of the driverless car. Those applications will come with higher-priority requirements, possibly requiring the use of a much larger seamless network beyond the size of a traditional 5G network. For satellite as a “network of networks”, this may create an opportunity to combine its global reach with its technical attributes regarding throughput and in the case of LEO, latency.

How will satellite support the rollout of the new 5G infrastructure?

5G is promising ubiquity, high throughput, high density (where needed) and low latency. Not all aspects can be offered through existing infrastructure and, therefore, a network of networks is not merely an option to facilitate the roll-out of 5G; it will become a requirement.

As such, satellite operators can support the roll out of 5G in many ways. The one that has always been at the forefront is satellites’ ability to cover large territories and cover water. In being able to do that, satellite can clearly support MNOs in expanding their footprint. With the advent of 5G and new satellite systems at the same time, there is now both the requirement and the option to bring more value to the MNO: more capacity and, in the case of LEO, much lower latency – both desperately required by 5G.

As much as these developments are underway via the expansion of HTS satellites and the new capabilities offered through LEO constellations, there is an additional aspect that is worth a closer look: the integration of all space elements with terrestrial infrastructure. A critical component of that integration is the satellite ground segment. To be able to bring the services to the customers, there is a need to continue to develop that equipment, particularly in the area of antenna systems. Flat panel, phased array antennas (FPAs) are widely recognised as the preferred solution. Lacking any moving parts and its software-based installation process are both helping to bring down the operational costs. The industry is working very hard to also bring down the price of these FPAs such that the total cost of ownership of these systems is competitive with traditional antenna systems. An added advantage in using these FPAs is the ability to integrate a lot of hardware and software into these systems, facilitating ‘self-installation’, but also allowing it to be much better integrated with terrestrial infrastructure.

Based on these advantages and due to their more elegant form factor and improved performance capabilities presented by some manufacturers, the terrestrial telecom providers are looking to use these systems to increase the capacity to end users and cut down significantly on implementation time, relative to a roll-out of terrestrial infrastructure. In the transportation use case, the FPAs’ form factor allow for a much better integration with the car, train, cruise ship and particularly aircraft. Lastly, from a LEO/MEO perspective, the FPAs provide a robust platform that is easier to install and maintain and is expected to be economically much more attractive than the traditional dual steerable antenna systems.

What does the future hold?

5G promises a next generation architecture where the end customer will benefit from higher throughput and access to more services in more places. Not all of that can be provided by terrestrial networking and a single network type. Satellite can play a key role in the development of 5G, provided it does a better job in seamlessly integrating its satellite services into these developments, with a focus on protocols, latency and capacity. Successfully doing so will vastly expand the number of locations where 5G can be offered and reduce the time to deployment. Those operating in this space will be able to provide connectivity, resilience and security required by 5G for significant sectors of the industry, offering a clear path for telecom operators in search of growth.