Written by Adrian Hillier, Head of Next G at TTP.

Even as we move into 2023, and the internet turns 40, the percentage of the world’s population that still does not have access to the internet is surprisingly significant. The majority of those regions without internet are due to the economics and complexity of connecting rural and remote areas with terrestrial networks. And this is something that 5G NTNs – otherwise known as 5G satellite communications – aim to change, by filling in the black holes and providing ubiquitous, reliable connectivity. 

Companies across the telecoms and satellite sector are navigating their role in this burgeoning new ecosystem. Satellite companies, telcos, and equipment and handset vendors all have their own questions about the unique threats and opportunities it will pose to their operations. The rapid migration and expansion of use cases from 4G to 5G has already demonstrated the value of the 5G network architecture in a terrestrial environment, and 5G NTN standardisation in 3GPP is a key driver to extend that momentum into satellite communications.

Here are some of our predictions of the challenges and opportunities that these companies will be exploring in 2023:

1. Network vendors will try and establish their roles in 5G NTNs

Infrastructure vendors for terrestrial networks typically sell large turnkey network solutions to operators. However, the total addressable market for 5G NTN infrastructure equipment is relatively small compared to the terrestrial market, and these companies are on the pathway to determine their role in this nascent area.

In 2023, the larger network equipment providers will be considering whether supplying equipment and services for the unique requirements of a small NTN RAN network offers sufficient reward to compensate for distracting attention away from their core terrestrial customers. Alternatively, it could present a new opportunity to evolve their own 5G networking solutions to dominate the nascent space sector.

3GPP has permitted a model for building 5G NTNs based on ‘OpenRAN’ architecture, which sees the RAN processing split across a radio unit (RU), distributed unit (DU), and centralised unit (CU). This deployment model can enable the RU, DU, and potentially other RAN components, to be more easily located on satellite infrastructure instead of a Ground Station. This ‘Regenerative’ architecture allows multiple satellites to connect to a single network gateway on Earth, and communicate with one another through satellite links. This can enable satellite networks to be more efficiently operated. It is likely to be a prominent model for building new 5G NTNs in 2023, and beyond.

However, many of the larger infrastructure vendors do not ‘open’ their equipment in this way and may be reluctant to participate in 5G NTN deployments that mix and match network components from different suppliers. Conversely, many smaller vendors have embraced the OpenRAN approach and could easily optimise their products to support the demands of a Regenerative satellite payload. This could open the door for smaller RAN vendors to steal a march on what they would consider to be a more attractive, higher-value market to complement their current offerings and provide new growth opportunities.

Given these complexities, in 2023, traditional and new vendors are looking for advice on how they can navigate this unknown area of 5G NTNs, profitably and efficiently.

2. There will be a race to the top for handset manufacturers to provide satellite connectivity

Handset manufacturers are looking to offer 5G satellite connectivity to provide users with more reliable connectivity and new use cases, even in remote or underserved areas. This would allow the manufacturers to expand the reach of their products higher up the value chain and differentiate themselves from competitors. Some companies, like Apple, T-Mobile, Huawei, and Bullitt, have already made announcements about investing in satellite connectivity. In 2023, we can expect Samsung to follow suit.

In 2023, more handset manufacturers will be looking to offer 5G satellite connectivity to provide users with access to reliable connectivity, even in areas where terrestrial 5G networks may not be available. This will help manufacturers attract customers who value connectivity and reliability in their mobile devices.

3. Satellite and telecom operators will have to work through a number of challenges

In 2023, 5G NTN companies will be working to overcome the numerous challenges of building and scaling these networks.

The success of 5G satellite connectivity will depend on regulators’ approval of global frequency bands and the optimisation of network performance through deep analysis of real network behaviours. The companies that lead in launching and trialling their services with key satellite operators will influence the future direction of the industry and accelerate the adoption of 5G technology for new use cases, such as connected cars and industrial IoT applications.

If 5G NTN networks are to produce universal coverage, they will also have to be composed of many satellites and beams, each of which must be coordinated to provide seamless coverage and interoperation with existing 5G terrestrial networks. This is a complex task, requiring extensive satellite system engineering and 5G network modelling expertise, and careful planning and coordination between network operators and equipment vendors.

Each satellite constellation has unique network architectural and operational characteristics which expands the list of deployment requirements when compared to terrestrial networks. Unlike terrestrial base stations, a satellite payload is essentially a battery-operated device operating in a very constrained and harsh environment. Low-power RAN architectures will enjoy a competitive advantage.

Other network performance challenges include link budget (power gains and losses in a communications channel), spectrum limitation (especially in sub-6GHz bands), large-coverage areas, and dynamic LEO cell management scenarios. 

4. Availability of spectrum for NTN

2023 will be pivotal for the advancement of NTN spectrum strategy, with SpaceX having already started the process to gain FCC approval for its satellite-to-phone service and ITU WRC-23 World Radiocommunications Conference providing a timely book-end to the year. During the intervening period, there will be a growing scramble for service providers to partner with those parties having the best access to scarce spectrum resources available for NTN. This scarcity will inevitably result in a clear delineation between “haves” and “have-nots” in regard to the provision of NTN services; a trend we will start to see playing out during 2023.

In order to overcome these challenges, 5G NTN companies will be looking to partner with companies that can offer consulting, technical, and procurement support to the entire 5G NTN ecosystem. This will help them to understand how to evolve existing products and services, in addition to where to invest to rapidly and efficiently compete in the 5G space race. Keep your eyes on the 5G NTN partnerships developing in 2023, it will be exciting!

This article was originally published on The Fast Node.

To find out more about how we are using our extensive experience in terrestrial and satellite communications to help our clients evolve their next generation of products and services, visit: https://www.ttp.com/industries/deep-tech/5g-communications/

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