Space-based systems needed
Even the new cellular networks won’t be sufficient for upcoming M2M communication. Good news: Satellites are getting so cheap that many companies can afford them, says Matthias Spott CEO of White Rocket Group
The motto of next year’s CIOmove is “stay connected”: In Europe and other economic hotspots around the world, telco operators are banging the drum for 5G. With a soft launch anticipated in 2020, this new generation of mobile-network technology is primarily expected to support new applications such as machine-to-machine (M2M) communications, the Internet of Things (IoT), and autonomous vehicles. With multibillion-dollar investments in this cellular infrastructure foreseeable, the hunt is on for new business models. 5G is believed to be the next big thing in telecommunications.
Coverage is essential
But can 5G alone really fulfill all telecommunications demands? Will it render alternative technologies such as satellite communications obsolete? Certainly not, as will be clearly shown below. A more likely scenario is that satellite technology will integrate with the upcoming generation of mobile-communications technology as naturally as it did with previous generations. Moreover, since satcom technology is evolving at a pace comparable to that of terrestrial radio networks, combining the two will offer vast potential for the creation of new, innovation-promoting opportunities.
The introduction of 5G technology will most likely be focused on cellular networks in urban areas and along the main arteries of the transport network, particularly in the early years of its deployment. In Germany, auctions for 4G spectrum were paired with obligations to provide service in the “white spots” of poorly served rural areas; however, no comparable obligation is envisioned for 5G – nor indeed would this make sense from a technological perspective. As 5G relies on networks of small cells with typical diameters of 50 to 100 meters, operators will have to establish a very large number of cells. This can be done in an economically feasible way only in densely populated areas that promise a quick and substantial return on investment. But this prerequisite is a natural barrier to achieving broad coverage in remote regions, as well as in environments such as the open sea, extensive farming areas or wastelands – that is, areas that only satellites can provide with affordable communications coverage.
A quick look at the current state of satellite technology will clarify why coexistence with future 5G networks will make a lot of sense. Communications satellites today provide mobile-phone services to users in the air, at sea and in remote land areas. They operate in the IEEE L (1 to 2 GHz), S (1.55 to 5.2 GHz) and more recently Ka (26.5 to 40 GHz) bands, and their signals can be received by a broad range of equipment including handheld, vehicle-mounted and fixed terminals. Notably, satellites serve in many regions of the world as a backbone, providing a signaling-offload function for cellular networks. They also serve as a communications lifeline during natural or man-made disasters, when terrestrial cellular coverage has broken down. Over time, the growing demand for data-transmission bandwidth has stimulated the allocation of more spectrum, leading to the extension of satellite services to additional and higher frequencies such as the Ka band.
Hybrid use of satellite and cellular services is already a reality
Where available, satellite and terrestrial technologies are already being used in a hybrid manner, and standardization efforts aimed at interconnecting the two technologies more efficiently at the network and IP levels are underway. In Europe, telecommunications operators such as Deutsche Telekom and Orange offer so-called triple-play propositions (internet, TV and phone) that rely on satellite services to provide the TV component in areas where DSL does not supply adequate bandwidth. This trend has expanded beyond B2C offerings to the B2B market, where a wide range of applications can be supported by satellite-based or hybrid communications. Possible applications include M2M communications, smart grids and intelligent transport systems, as well as uses in the aeronautical sector, for emergency and safety missions, and for governmental or defense purposes.
These segments clearly benefit from the global coverage and high degree of dependability provided by satellite communications. For example, the burgeoning IoT revolution will result in the deployment of billions of sensors and actuators over widely separated and remote areas, all transmitting at comparably low data rates; in this context, satellite communications will represent a viable alternative for data collection as well as systems control and configuration. Moreover, satellite systems also ensure the service continuity demanded by critical functions such as monitoring valuable assets like machines and vehicles, tracking goods such as containers, and maintaining data communications with widely distributed devices and recipients.
In rural and remote areas, the availability of satellitebased communications services enables IoT-based innovations in agriculture, forestry and other land-intensive industries. Providing network coverage to maritime and airborne transportation allows for ongoing monitoring of cargo and vehicles. Moreover, once access to high-performance internet connections becomes less of a concern, entrepreneurs will be able to choose farther-flung and thus more affordable locations for their businesses. Satellite services are generally more cost-efficient than cellular networks in providing coverage. And while terrestrial mobile communication typically offers a reliability of 95 percent to 99 percent, satellite services achieve values of up to 99.99 percent.
Furthermore, both geostationary- and non-geostationary-orbit (NGSO) satellite systems are expected to undergo a substantial evolution in the near future. They will implement higher data rates and throughputs based on multibeam broadcasting, extend frequency reuse, and increase spectrum and energy efficiency. Satellite systems currently under development will be better able to use their allocated frequencies to achieve more flexibility in bandwidth utilization and network topologies, as well as to utilize options such as intersatellite links.
Comparable developments in 5G and satellite technology
The upcoming 5G networks will rely on so-called network slicing, channeling available resources to meet applications’ demands – for example, providing high data rates, low latencies or extreme energy efficiency as required. Current technological developments in satellite communications promise similar benefits.
When ultralow latencies are required, 5G technology strives for magnitudes measured in milliseconds. This standard obviously cannot be met by satellite services. However, the number of applications that genuinely demand millisecond latencies is limited. With a new generation of low-orbit, high-performance satellite networks, space-based communications too will see a drop in response times, with typical latencies expected to reach the 100millisecond range.
The current competition between geostationary- and non-geostationary-orbit (or low-earth-orbit) satellites will also give way to increasing cooperation. In a manner similar to 5G’s network-slicing approach, low-earth-orbit (LEO) satellites are primarily expected to be used for time-critical or latency-critical applications, while geostationary systems (GEO) will support the majority of non-real-time communications.
The forthcoming generation of LEO satellite services will for the first time combine broadband speeds and lowlatency communication, enabling sophisticated applications such as autonomous vehicles. This means, for example, that self-driving cars could benefit from uninterrupted connectivity even when crossing borders. And while M2M applications are today typically confined to low bandwidth communication, this domain too is clearly trending toward a need for robust high volume real-time data capacities.
Regardless of orbit or service types, spacebased communications systems have the additional genuine advantage of having closed, proprietary network topologies. This provides a high level of privacy and data-protection capability in comparison to cellular services. Closed infrastructures that are independent of third parties such as regional providers or governments provide secure point-to-point data connections without any need to deal with local businesses or regulations. Some satellite providers’ business models even enable customers to become network co-owners if they wish to do so.
Finally, the broad coverage achieved by satellite networks is implemented using a single global standard in terms of technology, operators and contracts. International enterprises in particular can benefit from interacting with only a single satellite provider as opposed to many regional cellular-network providers, thus freeing themselves from dealing with communications standards ranging from 2G to 5G. This considerably reduces technological, organizational, economic and legal complexities.
The future lies in cooperation
It must be emphasized that satellite communications do not aim to displace cellular communications. Rather, space-based services offer a useful means of augmenting existing and future terrestrial communications technologies. Indeed, cooperation between the two fields can be particularly advantageous for B2B applications. Especially in the M2M/IoT segments, a combination of 5G-based cellular and satellite-based connectivity will be able to offer minimal latencies, service continuity and energy-efficient operation simultaneously. This will not be possible using 5G alone.
For this reason, one primary current objective is to develop interfaces and gateways able to provide prospective customers’ applications with transparent cellular (including 5G) and satellite-based connections.
A bright future lies ahead for these types of applications – and this future is sure to include the mutually beneficial coexistence of cellular and satellite connectivity.
Matthias Spott held a variety of expert and leadership positions in enterprises including Airbus and General Electric, and additionally worked in consulting firms such as McKinsey and Roland Berger. Since September 2014, he has focused on the “new space” sector and its synergies with Silicon Valley projects. Since August 2016, he is founder and CEO of Kaskilo AG, which aims to implement a european-based satellite network providing worldwide real-time broadband connectivity for applications related to the industrial Internet of Things.
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