If you’ve been following the launches of next-generation 5G cellular networks, you probably know that their most heavily marketed advantages involve radically improving speeds — a historic weakness of satellite-based communications solutions. But the European Commission-backed SaT5G Consortium has spent the past two years working on ways to keep satellites relevant in the 5G era, and announced today that it’s successfully demonstrated “5G over satellite” solutions that could be paired with terrestrial cell towers over the next few years.
Of the six prospective SaT5G services, two have the most obvious appeal: delivering 5G to aircraft and to underserved rural markets. In the former case, medium-Earth orbit satellites would be used to deliver 5G services to the inflight entertainment systems in planes, while the latter would provide fast upload and download services to areas that have traditionally had issues getting wired or fast wireless service. Sat5G expects that 5G over satellite could go beyond serving lightly populated areas to be used for short-term events with large numbers of people.
SaT5G’s novel spin is that it isn’t pitching satellite as the exclusive delivery channel for 5G services; instead, it sees opportunities to augment what only cell towers can handle with what satellites can reasonably deliver. So while customers might have their interactive service needs met by nearby, low-latency cell towers, the satellite connection could be used to speed up continuous downloads or uploads where responsiveness isn’t a factor, but extra bandwidth helps a lot.
Satellite 5G could also be used as a backup signal to terrestrial 5G, delivering more reliable or higher quality 4K video signals, or to transmit multiple live channels for distribution through a multi-access edge computer-based content delivery network. For instance, a hotel’s satellite dish could receive all the 5G-encoded data necessary for multiple 4K TV channels, then separate it out on an as-demanded basis by individual rooms.
The end goal of the SaT5G project is to create a cost-effective, plug-and-play satellite communications solution for operators, such that companies interested in using satellite 5G can easily add the necessary hardware and services to their networks. Looking forward, SaT5G also hopes that the 5G standard will link satellites in future satellite systems, though latency and Doppler shift will both need to be resolved first.
Though it has 16 members spread across 9 European states and Israel, SaT5G isn’t the only organization working on 5G satellite solutions. Late last month, Elon Musk’s SpaceX launched its first Starlink satellites, designed to provide high-speed internet service by orbiting modern telecom hardware closer to the Earth than past communication satellites. LeoSat has announced similar plans for some point later this year.