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5G Rolls Out in Asia: What Role Will Satellite Play?

By 2025, the Asia region will host 675 million 5G connections, accounting for more than half of world’s 5G connections, according to the GSM Association (GSMA). In the larger Asia-Pacific region, SIM connections will hit the 4.8 billion mark that same year.

South Korea, one of the region’s undisputed tech leaders, has already rolled out 5G on a large scale with all three of the country’s mobile network operators now offering the ultra-fast low-latency service in multiple cities. Other high-tech players including Japan, Singapore, and China, are expected to soon follow suit.

While Asia’s high-tech, high-income economies are set to drive the 5G revolution, 4G will still dominate Asia in the middle of the next decade, representing 62 percent of the market share. But, the balance will gradually swing towards 5G as the market evolves into the 2030s.

“Asia is probably the most diverse region in the world when it comes to mobile phone technology,” says Julian Gorman, head of strategic engagement, Asia, at GSMA. “But across the region, the one common thing is the demand and the appetite of users for mobile broadband and starting to participate in the digital economy.”

The relatively young population of many Asian countries compared to traditional markets such as Europe and North America is more open to innovations and tends to adopt new technologies faster, according to Gorman. The fact that many Asian countries, especially the developing ones, are not bound to legacy infrastructure based on computers, also contributes to faster growth.

“For example, in Myanmar before 2012, less than 10 percent of people had access to Internet,” says Gorman. “Today, Myanmar is one of the countries with the highest penetration of smartphones and Internet usage.”

Not all Asian countries share the same 5G trajectory. According to Prashant Gokarn, co-founder and chief operating officer of DigiAsia and former chief strategy officer at Indosat, less developed Asian countries, such as Indonesia, Malaysia, or Vietnam are unlikely to see any significant 5G deployment in at least the next two to three years.

“In countries such as Indonesia, 4G was only launched about four years ago,” says Gokarn. “Although we have about 80 percent smartphone penetration, only about 30 percent is 4G compatible. Operators have not yet recovered their investment into 4G. Moreover, discussions about spectrum allocation for 5G haven’t even been initiated yet.”

For these countries, the relatively high cost of 5G-enabled smartphones will present a major stumbling block for adoption, says Gokarn.

Where does satellite come into Asia’s 5G picture? Lluc Palerm-Serra, an analyst at Northern Sky Research (NSR), says that satellites might play a bigger role in 5G in general than they have played in previous generations of mobile networks. Previous mobile communication protocols, such as 2G, 3G, and 4G, were created by the mobile industry in isolation without too much interaction with satcom providers, Palerm-Serra says. Only after the earlier protocols had been published, satellite operators had a chance to start thinking about their contribution. As a result, he adds, the earlier systems, in particular 3G, presented significant challenges for satellite operators.

“5G is going to be very different because from the first day the vision of 5G has been to be a network of networks,” says Palerm-Serra. “All the access technologies will have some room to play in 5G. The satellite industry has been very actively participating in the negotiation of the protocols from the first day and I expect 5G to be more satellite-friendly and also to open a number of new applications over satellite.”

Similarly to its leading position in terrestrial 5G, Palerm-Serra expects Asia to be very active in the deployment of 5G over satellite. However, significant differences are likely to be found between countries.

“Asia is very wide,” he says. “You have countries such as Pakistan, Bangladesh, and India that are still deploying 2G over satellite and then you have countries like Japan, which surprisingly relies a lot on satellite even though you would expect it to be covered well with fiber.”

Palerm-Serra says that it will take at least another two to three years for satellites to fully join in the 5G ecosystem. “If we look at 4G, the standard is about 10 years old. But, we only started seeing 4G deployment over satellite in the past couple of years. I don’t expect 5G to be very different even though it might be easier to integrate over satellite,” he says, adding, “It’s a long-term race.”

The space-born technology, the analyst says, is likely to make contributions in four main areas: backhaul, trunking, mobility, and hybrid content delivery. In all four of these areas, satellite is already being used. The arrival of 5G will, however, likely increase the significance of satellite and lead to the emergence of new applications including Internet of Things (IoT), connected transportation, and network densification.

“You will see a lot of those applications emerging in Asia,” Palerm-Serra says. “For example, fiber backhaul in Asia is still not very developed in many countries. I believe that satellite backhaul and trunking will see a lot of use cases in this region.”

Eric Watko, Executive Vice President (EVP) for product marketing and strategy at SES Networks also sees opportunities for satellites in the rollout of 5G in Asia.

“The opportunities are potentially immense,” he says. “Asia is a region where many areas only have mobile coverage today because of cost-effective satellite backhaul. Here, satellites will play a key role in creating a more inclusive digital society by extending the reach of 5G networks to those that would otherwise not be reached.”

SES expects commercial satellite-based 5G to be introduced as early as 2020 and progress hand in hand with the gradual rollout of the technology that is expected to take place in the first half of the 2020s.

“The initial deployments will largely focus on enhanced mobile broadband services, supplementing existing 3G and 4G networks, particularly in dense urban areas,” Watko says. “However, given that bridging the digital divide is high on a lot of Asian countries’ agenda, we expect them to quickly look into utilising satellites outside the densely-populated cities so that 5G services can be enjoyed by everyone. Otherwise, introducing 5G in the cities would only make the digital divide worse.”

GSMA’s Gorman agrees that geographical challenges facing some countries in the Asia-Pacific region will play into the hands of satellite operators. “Satellite plays a part in mobile networks, connecting base stations in remote areas, connecting other things together where terrestrial and other forms of transmission are not available,” he says. “5G doesn’t change that need. 5G, if anything, grows that need for backhaul.”

Asia’s 5G Spectrum Conflict

Asia is likely going to face challenges when it comes to allocating spectrum for 5G. While the rest of the world is discussing the possibility of allocating some portions of C-band to emerging 5G providers, this particular spectrum band is still actively used in many parts of Asia and its loss would cause unnecessary complications.

According to Palerm-Serra, C-band, which includes frequencies from 4 Gigahertz (GHz) to 8 GHz, is in strong demand especially in Southeast Asia, where satellite operators rely on it for a variety of services because of its resistance to rain attenuation.

“In areas like Europe, C-band is not that popular,” says Palerm-Serra. “But in those areas where you have a lot of rain, satellite networks still very much rely on C-band and if that part of the spectrum were to be allocated to 5G, it would be quite a challenge for the region to adapt.”

Gokarn agrees that in Southeast Asia, 5G would have to run on higher frequency bands. “I see less of a problem with the higher bands because they are typically not very much used or they haven’t been allocated to any defense organizations,” he says.

According to Watko, the spectrum problem involves not only the C-band but also the 28 GHz band, which is currently being used by satellite operators in High Throughput Satellite (HTS) systems.

“There is simply no reason to even consider that band for 5G when the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) is already considering more than 33 GHz worth of other millimeter wave bands for 5G,” he says, describing the current spectrum discussion as, “continuing efforts by terrestrial mobile interests to encroach on the satellite industry’s spectrum.”

He added that even within the C-band, ranges between 3.3 GHz and 3.6 GHz could be used for 5G without interfering with the satellite industry’s use for TV content distribution.

According to Gorman, the spectrum conundrum is scheduled for discussions at the International Telecommunication Union’s World Radiocommunication Conference (WRC-19) to be held later this year. “We can expect some discussions about the best allocation of spectrum and how to resolve the conflicting interests of the satellite and mobile industries.”

The Satellite Business Case for 5G in Asia

5G demand to be driven by business needs, says Xavier Lobao, head of future projects division in the Telecommunications and Integrated Applications Directorate at the European Space Agency (ESA). This factor, he believes, is going to further boost the case for satellites. While Mobile Network Operators (MNO) will be primarily interested to roll out 5G in densely populated areas, businesses, especially those in the transport sector, will need connectivity everywhere.

“Mobile network operators will focus on cities, transport hubs and networks like highways and railways,” says Lobao. “There will be many areas that will not be covered by cellular 5G and this is where satellite will play a role.”

While DigiAsia’s Prashant Gokarn sees a limited role especially for Geostationary Orbit (GEO) satellites in 5G communications due to the latencies resulting from the long distance at which these satellites orbit, Lobao believes that even geostationary satellites will have their place in the 5G ecosystem as not all applications will necessarily require the low latencies of the cellular 5G. With the expected arrival of low-Earth orbit satellite constellations, the problem of latency will effectively disappear, according to Lobao.

“In the future we will have operators that will own satellites in geostationary and low-Earth orbit, or geostationary and Medium Earth orbit (MEO), even high-altitude satellite platforms,” Lobao says. “Then you might even have lower latencies via satellite than using a fiber-optic network because the fiber is not just a pure fiber. It needs switches and bridges and that accumulates delays.”

Palerm-Serra, however, says that it will be difficult for satellite to play a role in areas with developed fiber infrastructure, although there might be opportunities in back-up and increased resiliency. “There is no doubt that where fiber is less available, satellite will play a bigger role.”

ESA is currently preparing a pilot project with a Japanese shipping company to demonstrate the use of satellites in guiding autonomous ships.

“We realized that if we want to convince mobile network operators and telecom equipment vendors to look into the possible cooperation with satcom providers, we have found partners in the vertical business segments who already understand the need for a satellite,” says Lobao. “Companies that are looking to deploy autonomous ships already know that they will be in the middle of the ocean and still need to send a lot of data through their network in order to keep the ship going in the right direction.”

Other transport sectors, including aviation, road and rail transport, are also likely to adopt satellite 5G solutions, according to Lobao. The ESA pilot project involves a range of satellite operators, mobile network operators and telecom equipment vendors from all over the world to help facilitate the integration between the space-based and terrestrial systems and demonstrate use cases across the transport sector.

Lobao says the integration of satellite infrastructure into 5G networks is one of ESA’s top priorities for the agency’s upcoming ministerial conference that will take place in November this year.

According to Gorman, even though it may take a decade for 5G do become dominant, mobile network operators across the board will ultimately be driven to switch to the newer, more efficient and cost-effective technology. VS