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5G: Conflicts and Opportunities for Satellite

As a technology, nobody is quite sure what 5G means. It’s a whirl of uncertainty. We get the real sense that it will dictate the future of telecoms as we know it, but nobody really knows what or how it will impact the satellite industry. This next generation of wireless telecom will comprise a new suite of standards and infrastructure that will enable an altogether faster and more integrated service. But there are many questions that remain in terms of how this will be relevant to satellite operations.

“In Asia, 43 percent of the world’s 5G trials have taken place. Rollout is expected in 2019 in several cities in China and then other Asian countries are soon expected to follow,” said Andrew Jordan, president of AsiaSat. Jordan expects 5G to be a significant driver of business for satellite because it will require extensive backhauling. 5G towers have to be 100-150 meters apart from each other. Therefore, satellite could be crucial in delivering 5G to rural areas. Additionally, Jim Simpson, CEO of ABS, also pointed out that satellite will be important in terms of achieving ubiquity across 5G networks as Asia, especially, is not geared up with enough fibre.

Working together with the wireless industry and telcos will be critical going forward. Nile Suwansiri, CCO, Thaicom, explained they have been working with Softbank for some time and though it’s the “elephant in the room” it cannot be ignored.

“5G is more than mobile networks,” said Amit Somani, chief strategy officer at Yahsat. “It’s a network of networks.” He notes that 5G will evolve over time, but it’s an ecosystem of which satellite must play a part. Somani reinforces that it is now important that the satellite industry sits down with the wireless industry to find out ways of working together.

Latency of satellite networks has been earmarked as a big issue for 5G deployment over satellite but, though there are applications such as telemedicine and autonomous cars that are very latency sensitive, there are a whole suite of non-latency sensitive applications where satellite will be well-suited. Simpson explains that satellite can provide links for applications such as vehicle health monitoring, for example and there will be so much broadband demand in the future that connectivity to cell sites will be key.

Aside from achieving ubiquity, the panelists also saw satellite as an important component in terms of connecting smaller, more remote communities of just a couple of hundred people where the economics don’t make sense to connect them by fiber. 5G is also not tolerant of downtime, which also gives satellite an important job to do as a backup solution. Suwansiri also noted that satellite can act as an overlay for peak demand and as a means of delivering mobile edge computing where data must be pushed as close as possible to the end user.

Christensen then steered the conversation onto the threats that 5G poses to the satellite industry.

There could be impact in the broadcast and broadband segments. “The switch from 3G to 4G has created a big shift and has hit traditional broadcasters as people change the way in which they consume video,” said Nile Suwansiri. “5G will also be so fast and ubiquitous it will disrupt broadband services to end user so we need to be relevant in the middle mile and not the last mile.”

Somani again says that partnerships with telcos will be important moving forward because there needs to be some collaboration of business models at the application level. Suwansiri agrees with Somani, but admits that working with telcos is a challenge because they are reluctant to consider satellite and don’t want to work with it. “Getting their attention will be the hardest part.” he said.

But the overriding challenge remains the wireless industry’s grab for C-band spectrum, and other frequency bands. This is a very regional problem where some bands are critical due to weather issues. “Spectrum is a finite resource”, says Somani. There is a pressure because of the volume of business and it will be sought after by terrestrial players but each region has a very specific need. You cannot do without C-band in Africa for example. We need to coexist. As an industry, we have to be mature about how to share the spectrum. We need to be very careful.”

With a planned soft rollout in Asia over the coming few years, there will be a transitory effect that could put a potential squeeze on bandwidth, explained Simpson. Suwansiri explained that Asian regulators are looking to the United States to see what happens here and taking a cue from that.

An important point to note is that every regulator is not the same and they will all take different approaches. The industry, therefore, will need to work with regulators to educate them on the role that satellite will need to play in 5G. But ultimately, the ball will end up in the International Telecommunications Union’s (ITU) court.

Prompted by a question from the audience, the panel then discussed the controversial deal that Intelsat has made with Intel on 5G spectrum. Jordan had strong views on it.

“It’s bad deal in Asia. I don’t quite understand how it will work; It’s not our spectrum to sell, it’s a resource owned by mankind. They are selling the right to the spectrum and monetizing it,” he said.

Somani said that Yahsat felt that something had to be done. “Our feeling was if a deal wasn’t cut, something would be taken. What worries me is that this might proliferate across other regions,” he said. VS