5G: The Era of Convergence
Satellite could play a larger role in telecommunication infrastructure than ever before, but ensuring standards compatibility and getting pricing right is paramount. Now, the need for satellite and wireless to work together has never been greater.
February 14, 2017
“The miracle is this: the more we share, the more we have,” said U.S. actor Leonard Nimoy, who is probably better known for his role as Spock on U.S. television show Star Trek than for this quote. Known or not, the phrase has substance; but is it true? Can we share our resources and end up with something greater? And, applying this notion to the subject of 5G: Can we expect a great outcome if satellite and wireless networks worked together with an effective sharing scheme? Considering the 5G use cases, ranging from the Internet of Things (IoT), public safety and autonomous driving, to extreme video and gaming, Public Switched Telephone Networks (PSTN) and explosive data density management, among others, the potential is enormous. This is all the more reason for the satellite and wireless industries to get it right and converge.
Of course, actually getting two or more parties to share information and work together isn’t a meager act, even if the result is worthwhile. There are challenges; evolving from chrysalis to something new is not without growing pains. Uncertainty is added alongside these growing pains, which is exactly what the satellite industry has been facing since the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) ruling in July 2016. The FCC, an independent agency of the U.S. government responsible for regulating interstate communications by radio, television, wire, satellite and cable, adopted a first set of regulations to make new spectrum above 24 GHz available for 5G services. This move effectively saw the U.S. clinch the lead in the 5G race, but it also denied protected status to satellite systems that have been investing in Ka-band spectrum.
Uncertainty will linger until the framework is clear, says Lluc Palerm, senior analyst at telecommunications market research firm Northern Sky Research (NSR). “The FCC announcement in July wasn't very auspicious for satellite’s interests but we still really don't know what the actual implementation would be and what consequences it would have for the satellite industry,” he said.
While satellite now has “secondary” status and must comply with the FCC’s bandwidth-sharing strategies, Palerm adds that it does not necessarily mean satellite will not have access to these frequencies. However, the industry must prove it can offer value to the general interest with that spectrum, via remote internet access services, wireless backhaul or any other service in order for the FCC to continue protecting the interests of satellite communications.
Establishing the framework is key, explained a subject matter expert from the FCC during an interview with Via Satellite magazine. “Around the world, there are a lot of studies and analyses taking place, and many countries are anxiously awaiting World Radiocommunication Conference 2019 (WRC-19). But in the United States, we believe that it’s very important to first establish a regulatory framework and this is the reason that the FCC has been working so quickly to establish these regulations.”
Coexist and Expand
According to the FCC, the ruling struck a balance between new wireless services, current and future Fixed Satellite Service (FSS) operations, and federal uses. “The order includes effective sharing schemes to ensure that diverse users, including satellite and terrestrial as well as fixed and mobile, can coexist and expand,” says the FCC expert.
For expansion to take place, the industry must ensure “satellite-friendly” 5G protocols, says NSR’s Palerm. Concerning 3G, protocols weren’t well suited and the industry responded by making improvements with 4G. Therefore, in order to take advantage of opportunities, the industry must continue moving forward and making sure that 5G protocols are appropriate for satellite backhaul. In getting this right, the industry can enjoy robust growth. NSR’s “Wireless Backhaul via Satellite 10th edition” report forecasts global capacity demand to surpass the Terabit-per-second rate by 2025, growing at 38.5 percent Compound Annual Growth Rate (CAGR) in the next 10 years. Most of this capacity demand comes from 4G, with 5G deployments starting to have an impact on capacity demand on the second half of 2020. Mobile operators are also more willing to outsource network management and infrastructure, and this is creating opportunities for additional services, adds Palerm.
“Additionally, traffic patterns are changing and traffic is more ‘bursty.’ Ground networks need to be sized for the most critical use case — that being peak usage — but satellites are very good at bandwidth pooling. Satellite backhaul is very efficient for high-speed low-volume use cases. This overall low [Gigabyte] consumption, together with the lower cost of capacity due to high-throughput satellites and more efficient terminals, is extending the addressable market for satellite backhaul into the suburban metro edge, many times as an offload solution for congested ground networks battling to accommodate the capacity consumption booms driven by video. Previously, satellite communications were a last resort universal service obligation solution, but now economical drive motivates most of the deployments,” says Palerm.
The 5G rollout will move a lot of capabilities to the edge and particularly with content, and this will see the value in the mobile ecosystem moving from providing connectivity to platforms and content. Mobile operators are following suit, with AT&T’s purchase of DirecTV and Time Warner, and partnerships between Vodafone and Netflix, as well as Movistar’s buying Canal+ in Spain. Additionally, many are planning or operating Over-The-Top (OTT) platforms, especially targeted to mobile users.
“If base stations become broadcast stations or micro-content delivery networks, satellite could find a great opportunity for content distribution. No other technology beats satellite in multicasting so some opportunities could eventually emerge,” says Palerm. “All in all, the role of satellite is growing in the mobile ecosystem, but it's still a niche solution and ground networks will still carry the bulk of the traffic.”
HTS and Smarter Terminals
Considering how data traffic is booming, high-throughput technology couldn’t have come at a better time. The lowered cost per bit, afforded by High Throughput Satellites (HTS), is expected to see an increase in satellite backhaul, explains Palerm. While the role of satellite in the global mobile infrastructure is currently modest — less than 1.2 percent of global base stations are backhauled through satellite, according to Palerm — even slight growth of 1 percent would translate into unprecedented growth for satellite given the traffic boom and size of the mobile industry.
HTS is not the only key enabler for backhaul, though; ground terminals need to play their role and this means adapting to new market requirements. In addition to modems evolving from handling a couple of megabits per second (Mbps) to hundreds of Mbps, ground terminals must improve efficiencies in terms of Mbps/MHz, keep Capital Expenditure (CAPEX) at reduced levels, perform traffic optimization, optimally support “bursty” traffic and allow bandwidth pooling, support security applications and encryption, and optimize media traffic.
“While uncertainty and growing pains are real, it is clear that HTS together with smarter terminals, will bring satellite back to the game, and it will play a greater role in the telecom infrastructure,” says Palerm.
Similar sentiments, that satellite on the back of HTS and 5G will grow going forward, are shared by Aarti Holla, secretary general of Europe, the Middle East and Africa (EMEA) Satellite Operators Association (ESOA). According the Holla, the industry is already investing massively in suitable 5G-capable HTS capacity, so as to provide “fiber in the air” that can fill the fiber-lacking gaps on the ground. Future satellite systems will enhance overall system capacity and further reduce unit transmission costs, says Holla, stressing that affordability of broad bandwidth is paramount.
“Consumers notice if they don’t have service when and where they expect it, which these days is all the time and everywhere, and satellite will be essential for this geographic ubiquity. Today’s HTS and in future [Very High Throughput Satellites] VHTS can and will allow backhauling and trunking for delivery of 5G services in all parts of the globe on the ground, in the air and at sea. It will integrate into intelligent and optimized traffic management, such as content push, and support offloading from terrestrial-mobile networks to alleviate congestion and ensure network resilience. Satellite has a bright future within 5G, which is why the industry is active in the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP), to ensure compatibility of the standards being developed,” says Holla.
Harmonization of spectrum
Over the next two years, 5G developments will most likely focus on standards and demonstrating equipment and potential use cases, says Holla. From 2019 and beyond, initial commercial rollout is expected in spectrum below 1 GHz and in the 3.4-3.8 GHz part of the C band for services such as automotive, health, energy and industrial applications. In the U.S., the FCC is expected to offer fixed wireless access in the 27.5 to 28.35 GHz band made. Satellite services can accelerate deployment of those services across a wide geographical area. Industry can leverage the innovative capabilities of HTS to their fullest extent once the use of millimeter waves above 24 GHz becomes more widespread, notes Holla, adding that this will be in the 2020 to 2025 timeframe following the completion of the WRC-19 process and the subsequent regional and national implementations of the agreed coexistence mechanisms. However, terrestrial and mobile stakeholders must agree to focus on global harmonization opportunities enabled by WRC-15 decisions and not undermine harmonization efforts by pushing to use other bands.
The European Commission (EC) also urges stronger convergence, with subject matter experts adding that the main initiative should be 5G Public-Private Partnership (5G-PPP).
“We have encouraged the communities to jointly develop standards so that new HTS is developed with the same 5G standards in mind as the terrestrial systems, and this has also been supported by the European Space Agency [ESA], which has had a role in the activities of the 5G-PPP, managed by the EC for the public part and the 5G Association for the private part,” experts from the EC told Via Satellite in an interview. “HTS should be an integrated part of the 5G architecture and final system, and complement the terrestrial technologies, especially in rural areas or areas which will be difficult or impossible to serve by terrestrial technologies.”
Working together with standards bodies, the satellite and wireless industries have an opportunity to create truly integrated networks that complement one another. Therefore, information sharing is crucial: The satellite and terrestrial industries must work more closely together and build trust. To this end, satellite is active in multiple 5G forums, such as the EU’s Horizon 2020, European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI), ESA, the European Conference of Postal and Telecommunications Administrations (CEPT), the 3GPP and the 5GPPP.
“A big step forward would be for the terrestrial community to actively endorse and support the WRC-15 outcome with respect to spectrum above 24 GHz. Attempts to depart from the WRC-15 conclusions would lead to fragmentation in spectrum allocations, prevent global harmonization and ultimately defeat the goal, while causing uncertainty and impeding both growth and innovation,” says Holla.
While there is a specific domestic situation in the United States with respect to 27.5 to 28.35 GHz, the 32 GHz band can provide the same technical characteristics and has the support of the satellite industry worldwide. Only a continuous and open dialogue between these industries will create the hybrid networks necessary to provide truly ubiquitous and seamless geographic coverage with a uniform user experience, explains Holla. There is no reason the two industries can’t come together to support global harmonization at 32 GHz. In the words of Spock, not working together would be “highly illogical.”
Regulations, Roadmaps and Expectations
Last July the United States became the first nation in the world to identify high-band spectrum for 5G services when the FCC, the U.S. government agency responsible for regulating communications across the country, voted 5 to 0 to approve its Spectrum Frontiers proceeding. This ruling makes spectrum bands above 24 GHz available, a move that is expected to usher in the 5G era of high capacity, high-speed, low-latency networks.
Under the agency’s regulations, nearly 11 GHz of high-frequency spectrum for mobile and fixed wireless broadband, that is 3.85 GHz of licensed spectrum and 7 GHz of unlicensed spectrum, have been opened up. This will foster a new Upper Microwave Flexible Use Service (UMFUS) in the 28 GHz (27.5 to 28.35 GHz), 37 GHz (37 to 38.6 GHz) and 39 GHz (38.6 to 40 GHz) bands, and a new unlicensed band at 64 to 71 GHz. According to FCC subject matter experts, the agency will continue to seek comment on bands above 95 GHz.
While the U.S. pushed ahead with a bandwidth-sharing plan that gives satellite secondary status, the rest of the world is taking a different approach, explains an expert from the European Commission (EC). The European Union (EU) will implement the 5G Action Plan, which includes spectrum, as announced by the EC in September 2016. It is important, says the expert, that toward WRC-19, spectrum is harmonized among different regions in order to achieve a global system.
“According to the Action Plan, we aim for trials and deployment plans in EU member states to be harmonized so that we can get a forceful 5G introduction by 2020,” says the EC expert. “All the initiatives that we presented in September to boost connectivity in the EU as well as the revision of the Audiovisual Media Services Directive are important for the satellite industry.”
There is a standardization roadmap in place at the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP), the first 5G standard is planned to come out in the third quarter of 2017, says the EC expert, adding that South Korea is planning to showcase 5G services already at the Winter Olympics in 2018.
The clock is ticking for regulators and industries to enable 5G, explains Lasse Wieweg, director of government and industry relations at Ericsson. According to the most recent Ericsson Mobility Report, it is estimated that there will be half a billion 5G subscriptions by the end of 2022. Currently, almost 90 percent of smartphone subscriptions are on 3G and 4G networks, and fully standardized terrestrial mobile broadband 5G networks are expected to be available in the next few years.
“Ericsson is already seeing a great interest among operators in launching pre-standard terrestrial mobile broadband 5G networks,” says Wieweg.