In recent times, the communications world has seen an accelerated interest in reuniting technologies that were very distinct and separate operational domains not long ago, namely satellite communications (satcom) and terrestrial telecommunications (telcos).
This has been primarily driven by Release 17 from the 3rd Generation Partnership Program (3GPP) in mid-2022. Release 17 focuses on leveraging mobile satellite service (MSS) frequency bands for 3GPP user equipment (UE) direct connectivity with satellites. Key to unlocking these new 5G non-terrestrial network (NTN) services is the reunion of terrestrial and non-terrestrial services by reusing the existing reference signals, existing 5G core network (CN) functionality, and the cellular handset form factor.
Network convergence occurs when satellites connect with terrestrial network radio base station transceivers (gNodeB) via a transparent payload (where the waveform signal is repeated), and eventually, NTN-NodeBs via a regenerative payload (where part or all base station functions are onboard a satellite) for backhaul, Internet of Things (IoT)-NTN, and new radio (NR)-NTN applications. Consequently, the opportunity for satcom operators and telcos to work together to expand coverage and improve the quality of service all over the world has increased significantly.
The telco industry has been quick to establish support for satcom as industry stakeholders aim to unlock the potential of 5G NTN service. The emergent service opportunity of both industries has been on narrowband (NB)-NTN services delivered directly to mobile and IoT devices by satellites. While NTN exists as software that can be implemented in end-user handsets, base station gNodeBs, and the satellites themselves, equipment vendors have been swift to introduce chipsets capable of supporting a new generation of NTN-native mobile devices.
This proactive approach has led to the establishment of industry partnerships aimed at facilitating a wide range of NTN solutions to meet evolving demands from mobile devices, IoT, and even automotive applications. ABI Research believes that substantial opportunities exist for industry stakeholders to address critical markets, such as the estimated 330 million globally unconnected premises, 500 million workers in the business-critical sector, 218 million people annually impacted by natural disasters, and accumulated 525 billion hours of disconnectivity experienced globally every year.
Satellite connectivity has played a crucial role in addressing connectivity gaps within the IoT ecosystem, particularly for niche IoT service providers and dedicated IoT mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs). With recent developments by 3GPP and the LoRa Alliance to extend terrestrial-based communication standards (NB-IoT and LoRa) to the satellite domain, the ability for IoT service carriers to provide more ubiquitous, redundant, and unfragmented services is enticing.
In this way, it's no surprise that mainstream cellular carriers are now actively pursuing closer collaborations with satellite operators and forging significant partnerships with industry leaders, such as Sateliot, Intelsat, and Skylo. These partnerships signify a growing synergy between cellular carriers and satellite operators to leverage the advantages of satellite connectivity within the IoT landscape. What's more, the ability of satellites to extend the carrier’s NB-IoT and LoRa’s footprint and guarantee 100 percent continuity of global service availability is a compelling solution for continuous roaming and feature support.
Another critical area being addressed by current NTN services has been the support of satellite-to-cell services (NTN-mobile) for emergency and mission-critical applications. While players such as Apple, Qualcomm, and Huawei have taken a hardware and software approach to enabling NTN connectivity, which requires users to buy a new flagship device, other players are taking a software approach and targeting unmodified devices.
In this respect, T-Mobile, SpaceX’s Starlink, AST SpaceMobile, and Lynk are key players in the satellite connectivity field for unmodified mobile devices. They establish partnerships with global mobile network operators (MNOs), deploy satellites, and use MNOs’ terrestrial spectrum to offer services. AST SpaceMobile has secured strategic partnerships with more than 25 MNOs, including Vodafone, Rakuten Mobile, AT&T, and Bell Canada, serving a combined customer base of more than 1.8 billion cellular users.
6G Unified Networks
The ongoing evolution of 5G NTN brings about significant opportunities for synergy. It enables network redundancy and resiliency, extends coverage and capacity, and enhances flexibility and scalability. Moreover, the integration of NTN into the 5G system represents a progression toward a new generation of highly flexible, hierarchical, and dynamic networks, often referred to as three-dimensional (3D) networks.
This integration allows for interoperable and unified network components and functions between satcom and telco technologies. These advancements contribute to providing high-quality service connections through dynamic cell inclusion, self-organization, and self-healing capabilities. While 5G NTN extends the capabilities of the terrestrial 5G system, the development of regenerative network architecture points to a future where converged networks consist of coverage cells constituted from terrestrial, airborne, and spaceborne base stations, all interoperating with one another.
Consequently, the expansion of terrestrial and NTN services represents only the initial phase, as the convergence of the aerospace and communications ecosystems holds the potential to revolutionize industries. This transformative synergy between the satcom and the telco domains sets the stage for ground-breaking advancements and opportunities in various sectors around the world.
ABI Research in its recent report, The Role of Satellite in 5G: NTN Mobile (AN-5515), anticipates positive growth for the NTN-mobile segment, which will reach a market value of $18.6 billion and up to 200 million connections by 2031, representing a Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) of 35 percent between 2024 and 2031. VS
Andrew Cavalier, Industry Analyst at ABI Research, is responsible for projects focusing on wireless network and infrastructure and other emerging technology industry sectors. Recent projects have focused on Radio Access Network architecture, Open RAN standards, mobile operator 5G deployments, and metaverse applications.