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9 May 2019

Amazon arrives to 5G satellite party as LEO demos for 4K commence

Gone are the days when satellite was scarcely mentioned with regard to the mobile market, except to provide backhaul or access in very remote areas or to emergency services – or because of disputes over spectrum allocations. Now, some companies are looking to use satellite spectrum for terrestrial 5G (Dish and Ligado in the US), while others want to expand the use cases for satellite networks to support a wide range of enterprise and consumer applications, and give the technology a central role in 5G.

This week, satellite operator Telesat reported the results of a project with Vodafone and the University of Surrey in the UK, to carry out the world’s first demonstration of 5G backhaul using a low earth orbit (LEO) communications satellite. During the live test last month, Telesat’s Phase 1 LEO satellite connected to the university’s 5G testbed and delivered a round trip latency of between 18ms and 40ms, among the lowest latency recorded for a satellite connection.

The backhaul was used to support video chat, web browsing and simultaneous streaming of up to 8K video, as well as 4K video transferred to the edge of the 5G network. Other companies are planning to launch new satellite networks to support high-speed internet access, which in many cases will complement 5G, especially in industrial use cases, rather than merely filling gaps in ultra-remote areas.

OneWeb, which is partly funded by Softbank, has already launched its first six satellites, and the much-discussed SpaceX is working on trials for its Starlink broadband deployment. OneWeb recently closed a new round of funding, raising $1.25 billion, to bring its total to date to $3.4 billion. The latest round was led by SoftBank, Grupo Salinas, Qualcomm Technologies and the Government of Rwanda, while existing stakeholders Virgin Group, Coca-Cola and Airbus are still involved too.

Now, Amazon plans to launch 3,236 satellites to support internet access, according to filings with the International Telecommunications Union. The web giant has become increasingly active in supporting and trialing alternative connectivity options to those offered by the telcos – presumably to assert greater control over quality of service, optimization and cost, as it increasingly aims to manage and monetize the connections to its cloud, not just the cloud itself.

This will become particularly important as the cloud is distributed to the network edge, and as the market moves towards end-to-end, multi-network slicing. In the latter scenario, cloud players like AWS will want to manage the orchestration of the slices, rather than letting telcos take that critical role in the value chain.

Amazon’s Project Kuiper aims “to launch a constellation of low earth orbit satellites that will provide low latency, high speed broadband connectivity to unserved and underserved communities around the world,” a spokesperson said. The initiative clearly echoes the work Facebook and Google are doing to bring connectivity to the ‘next billion’, and in so doing, push their services as the new users’ first introduction to the world of the web.

Amazon, based on insider comments and its track record, will have a strong initial focus on the enterprise, in addition to consumers.

At the Amazon AWS Re:invent conference in November, AWS’s CEO Andy Jassy announced AWS Ground Station, a service that allows customers to download data from satellites into AWS’ cloud infrastructure. This initially leverages a network of 12 ground station antennas located on the same grounds as AWS data centers.

Mobile satellite provider Iridium is already working with AWS, to connect its satellite network to the cloud giant’s IoT services. The company has joined the AWS Partner Network to develop Iridium CloudConnect, which it says will be the first satellite cloud-based solution with global coverage for the IoT.

The service will enable corporate users of AWS IoT services to reach more than 80% of the world’s locations which lack cellular coverage. And when it comes to applications that require 5G, the cellular coverage will be even lower for many years – 5G will mainly be targeted at urban areas in the first phase and, as it will mainly be deployed in relatively high frequencies around 3.5 GHz in the early years, it will not achieve very broad reach.

Its CEO, Matt Desch, said recently, “Iridium CloudConnect will completely change the speed at which a satellite IoT solution can be deployed and will allow existing AWS customers to keep everything the same on the back end, while opening up the opportunity to quickly expand their coverage. This is a major disruption for satellite IoT. Costs will drop, time to market will speed up, risk will be reduced.”

Iridium has a constellation of 66 cross-linked satellites to deliver global coverage and is pursuing a $3 billion plan to replace its entire original constellation with new satellites, known as Iridium Next.