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13 September 2021

Direct 5G-satellite connectivity should reach smartphones in 2023

By Wireless Watch Staff

Having spent many years battling over spectrum rights, the cellular and satellite communities are looking to adopt a common and integrated approach to some 5G services. One of the important aspects of the 3GPP Release 17 standards, which should be frozen in mid-2022, is a non-terrestrial networks (NTN) element that will enable Release 17-compliant devices to link directly to compatible satellites without a ground-based cellular connection.

Commercial devices supporting the latest specs should come to market by mid-2023, given support from ecosystem players such as major chip providers, like Qualcomm. These smartphones and other units would, for the first time, be able to receive a connection from a satellite, so that users would not be confined to expensive proprietary satellite phones.

While those satphones use satellite spectrum in L-band (1.5 GHz) and S-band (2-4 GHz), the NTN handsets will use 5G frequencies such as 3.5 GHz, or a combination of both types of spectrum. Both established satellite operators, and start-ups like Lynk Global, aim to support direct satellite-to-5G links, especially from low earth orbit (LEO) satellites.

In the early stages, this will be for low data rate applications that require ubiquitous coverage such as some machine-to-machine services in agriculture, logistics or energy, plus emergency communications. Much of the commercial focus is on the IoT, rather than expanding human access as initiatives like SpaceX are targeting. The 3GPP has a study on running the air interface of NB-IoT, the 4G-based low power WAN protocol, over satellite and satco Inmarsat has run a test in orbit with MediaTek.

Lynk Global announced last year that it had connected a standard smartphone to one of its LEOsats – which it calls “cell towers in space” – in order to send text messages from above the remote Falkland Islands in the south Atlantic. The company has applied for an FCC licence to launch a small constellation of satellites to support a direct-to-mobile satellite service in 2022.

The forthcoming Apple iPhone 13 will reportedly support a customized Qualcomm X60 5G modem that could connect to LEOsats directly, though this feature is likely to be confined to specialist users such as emergency responders in the first phase, rather than being a common consumer capability.

One challenge will be how the satcos and MNOs – and other stakeholders like Amazon – play together in this market. Softbank has already set out an NTN strategy as a way to expand its global reach without buying licences or building terrestrial networks in each market and other ambitious telcos may follow suit, while others will see NTN partners merely as a way to extend existing relationships with satellite services, to support customers in remote areas or temporary networks.