Former FCC Chairman Ajit Pai’s “big day for American leadership” was Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2020 — The start of a public auction of 120 megahertz of 3.7 gigahertz C-band spectrum to be repurposed for 5G. Pai’s 5G FAST plan, which he spent years promoting as the creator of, “millions of jobs, billions of dollars in investment, innovation on our shores, and stronger economic growth,” grossed $80.9 billion in government revenue.
Five global satellite operators – Eutelsat, Intelsat, SES, Star One, and Telesat – are now finishing up the process of clearing that spectrum by their upcoming deadline in December, so that they can receive their cut of $9.7 billion in promised relocation payments. These operators will then prepare to do it all over again in two years, when they will be expected to clear an additional 300 megahertz of spectrum inventory.
Pai’s plan feels like it was hashed out a decade ago. 5G FAST was established before the COVID-19 pandemic and the 2020 U.S. national elections. Pai is no longer chair of the FCC and he is still without a Senate-confirmed permanent successor. To date, Jessica Rosenworcel still leads a four-member Commission in an acting capacity. Also to date, the status of current U.S. President Joe Biden’s big infrastructure bill remains in limbo. The details of how billions of dollars carved out of the package for broadband infrastructure roll-out remain vague.
In the United States, the general public still doesn’t make the connection between 5G and Pai’s “millions of jobs, billions of dollars in investment, innovation on our shores, and stronger economic growth.” For some, 5G is a number that appears on their new smartphones, signaling a somewhat faster connection compared to good ol’ 4G LTE. For others, 5G is at the center of a massive and convoluted conspiracy theory concocted by social media “experts” who “know how things really are.”
5G, which was supposed to truly connect every person, road sign, ambulance, retail outlet, toaster, and Peloton on Earth, instead came at arguably one of the most disconnected periods of our lives.
For the satellite industry, the chasm between now and the great bandwidth clearing agreements of 2019 is one filled with realization and building confidence. The industry finds itself in a strangely more favorable reality in 2021. COVID-19 put 5G’s physical infrastructure roll out on ice for two years and completely changed spending priorities for global governments. The giants of the terrestrial wireless world emerged on the other end of that two-year stretch behind schedule in the race to build the largest connectivity infrastructure system in history.
During that same time, SpaceX launched more than one thousand Starlink satellites, OneWeb made the fastest bankruptcy turnaround in history, a dozen space startups went public, and the world’s largest satellite operators actually launched company-branded mobility services directly to the end user. The industry also expanded its embrace of the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) standard and self-formed two industry organizations calling for widespread open technology.
The pace of research and development from technology companies such as Lynk, OmniSpace, Vulcan Wireless, Lockheed Martin, and AST SpaceMobile accelerated during quarantine. These firms have invested in unlocking a hidden potential in satellites — to overcome the physics that stand between telecommunications spacecraft and a direct, high-performance data connection to off-the-shelf consumer devices. And, they are now demonstrating the ability to break through that barrier.
Terrestrial and satellite connectivity providers find themselves at the same point in time, asking the same intriguing questions about 5G – Can satellites do more than just provide backhaul for 5G? Can satellites fit in seamlessly with an integrated 5G network, and lighten the build-out load for terrestrial partners? Could satellites even go so far as provide 5G “fronthaul” service defined as high-performance Internet of Things (IoT)… on their own?
Satellite and terrestrial hybrid specialists Omnispace and Vulcan Wireless strongly believe so, and will use the space industry’s go-to end user – the U.S. military – to help them prove it. In September, the two partners used the constellation assets that Omnispace acquired from ICO Global (now known as Pendrell) to test a direct voice and data connection between a satellite and a PRC-117G mobile tactical military radio using commercial S-band frequencies.
“Imagine the possibilities that 5G technology will enable for government — from COTM handheld devices to IoT platforms,” says Campbell Marshall, Omnispace’s vice president for Government and International Markets, after the test. Omnispace is all in on S-band as the future of satellite connectivity for complex IoT and 5G networks. It has purchased two satellites from Thales Alenia Space that it will use to launch a “global 5G mobile network delivered via satellite” beamed from a constellation of Low- and Medium-Earth Orbit (LEO/MEO) satellites utilizing 2 gigahertz spectrum.
They’re not alone in this belief. Intelsat’s CCO Samer Halawi sits on its company’s board of advisors. And, just one week after its successful satellite-to-tactical military radio demonstration, Omnispace convinced Lockheed Martin to join in the development effort as a strategic partner. Rick Ambrose, who just recently retired as Lockheed Martin’s executive vice president of space, said that the two organizations share a common vision of space-based 5G global networks.
“These networks would enable users to seamlessly transition between satellite and terrestrial networks — eliminating the need for multiple devices on multiple networks,” says Ambrose. “Ultimately, it’s about empowering end users with low latency connections that work anywhere. This step forward has the potential to upend space-based mobility.”
When asked in an interview earlier this year if satellites can truly deliver 5G on their own, Omnispace CEO Ram Viswanathan refers to his past experience working with the former XM Satellite Radio network, a gig that shaped his view of space-based 5G. “It’s very unfortunate that the satellite and wireless industries have always had a zero-sum game type of approach to 5G,” says Viswanthan. “We look at a satellite as part of the integrated 5G network architecture. When you loosen those constraints and start fresh from a clean sheet of paper, you reimagine a network which has multiple components that work seamlessly together in order to transit traffic.”
In March 2020, Lynk Global hit a significant satellite technology milestone. It sent a message from a LEO satellite directly to a cell phone on Earth — an achievement that resonates even today after Apple acknowledged that it was testing direct satellite connectivity to its new iPhones for emergency communications.
Lynk achieves direct-to-handset connectivity by lowering the altitude of their satellites, narrowing the slant range of the antenna, and operating in the sub-1 GHz spectrum – essentially tricking mobile phones into treating the satellite like a normal mobile cell tower. Lynk’s Global co-founder Charles Miller, who also co-founded NanoRacks, calls Lynk’s “cell tower in space” technology a “bigger deal than 5G.”
Though Lynk promotes itself as a wireless company and not a satellite company, it still has to play by satellite company rules and regulations. The company is seeking FCC approval to launch up to ten test satellites as early as 2022, and then several thousands more to provide global coverage in 2025. Its investors include Steve Case, former CEO of AOL, Blazar Ventures, RRE Ventures, Avonlea Capital, and One Way Ventures.
Regional mobile network operators are buying into Lynk’s alt-infrastructure concept. Aliv, a telco located in the Bahamas, just recently acquired first-to-market rights to implement Lynk’s satellite-to-cell service. Aliv CTO Stephen Curran isn’t quite ready to elevate satellites from their status as an emergency back-up. He sees Lynk’s coverage provider role (for now) as situational — during extreme weather events when its main network sites are down. Curran is mostly intrigued by the fact that Lynk satellites can connect directly to the off-the-shelf phones of its maritime end-users. This could eliminate the need to spend money on satellite-specific antenna receiver hardware.
Luxembourg and UAE-based startup OQ Technology follows 3GPP-based cellular standards for narrowband IoT in its effort to enable consumer devices to switch seamlessly between terrestrial and satellite connectivity. It has recently applied for six patents in the United States and Europe to improve IoT service in remote locations. The company launched its first LEO commercial satellite Tiger-2 in June.
OQ Technology CEO and Founder Omar Qaise highlights the importance of the 3GPP standard in the way it breaks satellite technology out of its specialized technology silo. He believes satellites will achieve true integration with the larger connectivity infrastructure when end-users don’t have to think specifically about the satellites and how coverage is handed over between space and terrestrial networks.
His company has just signed a collaborative agreement with SES joint-venture GovSat to develop and test satellite-based IoT and M2M products for the government and military sector. Under the agreement, OQ Technology will have to re-design its satellite IoT user terminal to fit GovSat’s frequencies in X- and Ka-band, but will also gain access to this satellite capacity, which spans Europe, the Middle East, Africa and South West Asia and includes maritime coverage for the Atlantic, Baltic, Mediterranean and Indian Oceans.
This will benefit the pipeline of potential customers that Qaise engages with in the energy and logistics sector. “Once the service trials are successful with these customers, we expect to start closing commercial contracts for latency tolerant applications, for example, predictive maintenance reports,” says Qaise. “If all goes well in two years [with] the whole constellation, then we can even address real-time applications including ATM machines, drones, and smart cars.”
The wild card in the commercial satellite industry’s blitz to 5G is none other than SpaceX and its impressive and intimidating Starlink constellation. In addition to coming into its own as a fairly powerful broadband service provider (with average download speeds now exceeding 50 mbps), Starlink serves as a symbol of what is very quickly and suddenly possible with modern small satellites. To all the companies mentioned in this story, it is both a blessing and curse.
It is only a matter of time before Starlink untethers itself from its $500 end user terminal. SpaceX moves quickly and quietly, only punctuated by tweets from SpaceX founder Elon Musk. This will likely be how Starlink announces its transition to a full mobile satellite service, goes public with an IPO, and rearranges all of the strategic long-term plans of its competitors – all in 280 characters or less. VS
Correction: An earlier version of this story had a typo in the date of the C-band auction.