Swedish telecom equipment maker Ericsson, French conglomerate Thales and U.S. chip company Qualcomm are testing how a 5G network could work using low-Earth orbit (LEO) satellites. The benefits are expected to include coverage of extreme geographies or remote areas across seas, oceans and other locations where terrestrial coverage is absent, enabling global connectivity for transportation, energy and health sector 5G use cases as well as boosting 5G smartphone subscriber roaming service capabilities,
The space-based network could also be used as back-up support to terrestrial networks in the event of major network outages or disasters.The expected security capabilities of 5G non-terrestrial networks (NTNs) mean that national government communications may be a main use case, to enhance safe and secure national security and public safety government networks.
The test bed for the 5G network, will be located at a site that emulates the space environment in France operated by Thales, a French multinational active in the space, defense, security, aerospace, and digital identity sectors.
The pilot study represents the first time a network equipment vendor such as Ericsson has sought to use LEO satellites to extend 5G connectivity to smartphones. It could pave the way for global wireless coverage from space at a time when governments have become increasingly concerned about ensuring the autonomy and resilience of their telecoms infrastructure. However, it must overcome significant hurdles to connect terrestrial infrastructure to satellites, ensure that the network it creates is not prohibitively expensive and eventually secure private or public funding to launch the satellites.
The fast growing LEO ecosystem is dominated by Elon Musk’s SpaceX initiative, but a growing number of companies are seeking to enter the “low-earth” space — situated between 150km and 2,000km above ground — where there are opportunities to increase scale and reduce cost.
Testing a potential new LEO 5G network, which will seek to establish that the technology can actually work on smartphones, was made possible by the release of a new “non-terrestrial network” standard by one of the most influential telecom standard-setting bodies, 3GPP, earlier this year, notes The Financial Times. Some smaller companies have started testing their own proprietary space-based networks for phones, that do not rely on the industry standard and would therefore probably have limited scope.
Ericsson, Thales and Qualcomm have not set a date for when their first LEO satellites will be launched, but are hoping to deploy within the next few years, and say they will seek to obtain dedicated satellite spectrum for their network.
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