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Just as the Starlink consortium was adding craft to its satellite broadband constellation, Ericsson, Qualcomm Technologies and Thales have announced plans to take 5G capability across a network of Earth-orbiting satellites and are now entering smartphone-use-case-focused testing and validation of 5G non-terrestrial networks (5G NTN).
The benefits of 5G connectivity via low Earth orbit (LEO) satellites are expected to include coverage in extreme geographies or remote areas across seas, oceans and other locations where terrestrial coverage is absent. Such widespread connectivity would boost 5G smartphone subscriber roaming service capabilities, as well as enabling global connectivity for transportation, energy and health sector 5G use cases.
It could effectively mean that a future 5G smartphone could use 5G connectivity anywhere on Earth and provide complete global coverage for wideband data services, including places normally only covered by legacy satellite phone systems with limited data connectivity capabilities. The space-based network could also be used as backup support to terrestrial networks in the event of major network outages or disasters.
The expected security capabilities of 5G NTNs mean that national government communications may be a main use case to enhance safe and secure national security and public safety government networks.
After the comms technology provider and the aerospace firm each confirmed detailed research, which included multiple studies and simulations, they have moved on to the next stage of the project. The testing and validation by Ericsson, Thales and Qualcomm, following the March 2022 go-ahead by global telecommunications standards body 3GPP, is intended to support non-terrestrial networks for the first time.
The goal of the testing will be to validate various technology components needed to enable 5G non-terrestrial networks, including a 5G smartphone, satellite payload and 5G network pieces on the ground.
The work also aims to validate that 5G NTN can be supported in a smartphone form factor, allowing tomorrow’s 5G smartphone to effectively become a satellite phone. Initial tests will take place in an emulated space environment in France, where the majority of European space-focused industry is based.
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Ericsson plans to verify a 5G virtual RAN (vRAN) stack, modified to handle radio signals propagating (what happens to 5G radio waves travelling through the vacuum of space and the Earth’s atmosphere) via the fast-moving LEO satellites. Thales plans to verify a 5G radio satellite payload suitable for deployment on LEO satellites, while Qualcomm plans to provide test phones verifying that 5G NTN can be accessed by future 5G smartphones.
Experts will use ground-based equipment to emulate the 5G radio propagation and time delays between an equipped satellite in orbit and connecting a 5G smartphone with the 5G radio access network at different places on the Earth’s surface.
“For 5G to fulfil on the promise of ubiquitous connectivity, it is imperative that it can also deliver network coverage in areas where terrestrial cellular networks do not exist, whether that be over oceans or in remote areas,” said John Smee, senior vice-president, engineering at Qualcomm Technologies. “Our planned research with Ericsson and Thales will kick off an important step in making this vital technology a reality. We are looking forward to what this collaboration can accomplish.”
Erik Ekudden, senior vice-president and chief technology officer at Ericsson, said: “This testing and validation cooperation between Ericsson, Thales and Qualcomm Technologies will be a major milestone in the history of communications, as the ultimate result could effectively mean that no matter where you are on Earth – in the middle of an ocean or the remotest forest – high-end, secure and cost-effective connectivity will be available through collaborative 5G satellite and terrestrial connectivity.”
Philippe Keryer, executive vice-president, strategy, research and technology at Thales, added: “The deployment of 5G networks marks a step-change for the telecoms industry. It is a game changer, not only in terms of business opportunities, but also in the skills required to connect and protect billions of people and things. Thales is deeply involved in it through the different activities of the group. The research collaboration with Ericsson and Qualcomm Technologies will demonstrate the belief of our companies that 5G non-terrestrial networks will contribute to this revolution and will take network resiliency and security to the next level.”