Your browser is not supported. Please update it.

25 October 2022

MWC Las Vegas: satellite convergence, FWA and O-RAN top the bill

Convergence and collaboration emerged as key themes at the recent Mobile World Congress Las Vegas 2022 as attendance recovered some, but not all, of the decline from pre-pandemic levels when the event was held in Los Angeles. Under the show’s theme of ‘Connectivity Unleashed’, major industry players were seen to be joining forces to address challenges faced by operators as they embrace virtualization and cloud computing principles in search of elusive efficiency savings and greater agility in deployment of new services.

At the same time, there was growing appreciation that mobile networks cannot by themselves achieve global coverage without assistance from satellite constellations over the oceans and remote land areas. Such ubiquity is becoming essential as mobile networks are relied on for critical services such as navigation, autonomous transportation and emergency response.

The irony is that mobile networks have for some time been seizing both bandwidth and business from satellite platforms as some services formally delivered that way, such as direct-to-home (DTH) TV, have moved to terrestrial networks. At the same time though, a lot of that video traffic has been carried during part of its journey over satellite networks, and now even more so to fill in those coverage gaps. And now there is the appreciation that both sides need each other, for satellite operators to replace lost DTH revenues by carrying terrestrial traffic, and mobile operators by having a coverage umbrella.

Various keynote speakers at the [email protected] World Congress sub-event talked about a growing realization that cellular operators cannot deliver on their long-term 5G business plans without the aid of satellite transmission. While discussions along these lines have been proceeding at a low level for some years, it is only with 5G that they have come to a head, according to one of these speakers, David Kagan, CEO of Globalstar, US operator of a low-earth orbit (LEO) constellation for low-speed data services. Kagan highlighted Apple as its largest customer already driving convergence between satellite and terrestrial networks, while also generating new revenues for both camps.

“Through new wholesale agreements, our excess capacity can support an approximately 50-fold increase in our own subscriber base following recent and planned investments in our space and ground segments,” said Kagan, referring to emergency services provided over the Globalstar network. “This growth is going to happen quickly. On their own, our SPOT product line and satellites have saved 8,600 lives during the last 15 years. That’s 1.6 lives per-day on average servicing 250,000 customers. Imagine how many lives we can now save as we add those services to Apple’s iPhone 14.”

Kagan also noted that rising terrestrial infrastructure costs were excluding rural communities from access to cellular networks, while lower satellite bandwidth prices were in turn reducing barriers for entry there.

For areas slightly less remote, fixed wireless access (FWA) is filling in broadband coverage, especially in the USA, which brought this well up the agenda at MWC Las Vegas. Both Verizon and T-Mobile have launched FWA services on a scale great enough to make this a serious option for broadband across a large swathe of the country’s extensive rural areas.

FWA could also be seen as part of a wider discussion at MWC about applications that monetize 5G most effectively, which was more evident than at past MWC events in the country. While mobile gaming is another use case that could generate greater revenues over 5G, especially in Standalone mode, which enables potentially lower latencies, many of the other opportunities are on the B2B front around the IoT. These in turn break down into multiple scenarios driven by quite distinct business models, some more associated with transaction volume spread across large numbers of devices, and others where individual QoS is paramount, as in the automotive sector. One of the discussion points at MWC Las Vegas was how to unleash wireless connectivity for a plethora of different IoT models.

No mobile event is complete without discussion of Open RAN and not surprisingly, several key vendors on that front timed significant announcements for MWC, including Rakuten Symphony with details of new Open RAN tools and a partnership with AWS to exploit them. Qualcomm announced that its Open RAN chipsets are already being trialed by operators with expectations of commercial deployment in 2023. NEC opened an innovation hub for Open RAN in North America as well as a new software suite, while Mavenir revealed it had started making Open RAN radio equipment in India.

The partnership theme weaved through many of the technology issues discussed at MWC. Among discussion points was a recent partnership between Elon Musk’s Starlink and T-Mobile USA to provide widespread high-quality communications for automotive vehicles, which until recently have experienced gaps in coverage in rural areas that can have an impact on live navigation, as well as access to infotainment services. At the event, Sara Spangelo, senior director of satellite engineering at Starlink’s parent operating and manufacturing company SpaceX, said that Starlink’s service would soon be accessible from cellphones in the USA.

“A modern cellphone is essentially an underpowered, poorly located satellite antenna for a cell tower in space,” Spangelo indicated. “We spend pretty much everyday testing Starlink connectivity to the cell phone in various scenarios, such as having the phone in your pocket, or being under tree cover, or being in a car. It’s really exciting how we’re making this work. Being in a car is the most challenging scenario, but also the most exciting, because we feel this is the way we unlock the automobile as a truly complex, connected environment.”

Spangelo added that T-Mobile was just the first of many partnerships to come with operators.

Other satellite platform operators, including SES and Intelsat, insisted that 5G was driving demand for satellite network services more than ever before, for long distance cellular backhaul, as well as broadband connectivity. The main obstacle now was seen as communication between the two camps involved at the human rather than technological level.