Ericsson, Thales and Qualcomm testing satellite 5G services

The goal is globally available connectivity, but it’s unclear whether satellite 5G will have a major market share.

African city lights as seen from space in a satellite view of earth.
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Ericsson, in partnership with Qualcomm and Thales, announced today that it is jointly planning trials of a satellite-based 5G network, using low-earth orbit satellites to provide globally available connectivity.

The idea is to provide a backup service to terrestrial 5G, offering coverage in remote areas where 5G may not be deployed for some time. The companies said in a joint statement that they expect national governments to be among the primary users of such a service, for national security and public safety networks.

Satellite services are a key part of 5G being able to live up to expectations, according to John Smee, Qualcomm senior vice president of engineering.

“For 5G to fulfill on the promise of ubiquitous connectivity, it is imperative that it can also deliver network coverage in areas where terrestrial cellular networks do not exist, whether that be over oceans or in remote areas,” Smee said in a statement.

The plan isn’t to offer direct-to-endpoint 5G service via satellite, but rather to provide a backhaul method that doesn’t involve trying to run fiber into impractical or remote areas.

Bill Menezes, director analyst at Gartner Research, said that the Ericsson-Qualcomm-Thales project is unlikely to be unique, as other wireless industry stakeholders follow suit.

“There’s an opportunity here to create a variety of ways that 5G hardware and tech can play in what could be a pretty rapidly growing part of the satellite business,” he said.

The idea of satellite-backed 5G base stations is attractive, but mostly in specific use cases, noted Menezes, citing oil rigs, airliners and particularly rural areas as good candidates for the service. However, the overwhelming majority of 5G networks are likely to remain fully terrestrial for the foreseeable future.

“It’s newsworthy that they’re doing real-world testing, which hopefully means it’s the next step before deployment,” he said. “But it’s still going to be a niche connectivity market – the real question is what’s the demand going to be?”

Menezes estimated that fully operational satellite 5G networks of this sort are still likely three to five years away, but this type of satellite-based backhaul is something that the 3GPP telecommunications standards body and other mobile networking stakeholders have been trying to get working for years.

“As we get more of these [low-earth orbit] broadband satellites, the idea that you can support even-better-than-4G connectivity in areas where there was no connectivity before could be pretty compelling,” he said.

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