5G is the biggest buzzword of the day in the mobile industry, in large part because mobile carriers are investing heavily in it and want us to share their excitement. In the satellite world, the buzz is about low Earth orbit or LEO constellations. We are often asked at Speedcast whether these two technologies will provide a dramatic change in the services, capacity and pricing we can offer customers.  The answer is, it depends. 

What We Expect From LEO

Low Earth Orbit (LEO) constellations will bring terrestrial broadband connectivity to every corner of the globe; with a similar experience on a ship that you could get in your office.  This will be a game-changer in the industry enabling a boom of opportunities not currently available to customers operating on GEO solutions.  Telesat, SpaceX, and OneWeb have all begun putting satellites in orbit to bring this service to customers in the very near future.  While they all have their differences, one thing that is consistent is there will be more bandwidth available and it will have low latency.

Latency is a big deal and moving a satellite service to latency equivalent to those of terrestrial networks is a monumental shift in satellite service offerings.  Many applications like ERP systems are designed to work on terrestrial networks and struggle to – or just won’t – work on GEO satellites.  This important feature of a connection has been physically impossible to date due to the sheer distance from Earth that satellites have operated from, and bringing them closer has opened many possibilities.

GEO and MEO satellites still have their place in the market.  The end-state will be a world with all three options available to customers and each solution with its own niche in the market.  For applications where latency is acceptable, GEO will continue to be a viable solution for many years.  What you will see is some market cannibalization from GEO/MEO services as LEOs come online, but I think more importantly you will see new markets emerge that have just not been possible with today’s technology solutions.

What We Expect from 5G

The 4G and 5G waveforms are based on TDMA (time division multiple access) architecture, which shares capacity among users by slicing up time into narrow segments. The mobile providers have invested billions in developing the waveform, so it is very advanced. But it serves a different role in the communications mix. Installed on a remote site for local connectivity, it will outperform private LTE and Wi-Fi. If you are operating a well or mining camp on land in an area served by 5G, it will offer very powerful and cost-effective connectivity with very low latency. For vessels operating nearshore where 5G is available, it can provide a big boost in bandwidth over 4G/LTE. But it will not have the global reach of satellite, and it is not designed to provide the kind of committed information rate that some mission-critical applications in energy and other industries require.

Where 5G will be powerful is in reducing the need to build out more wired infrastructure on land.  

That should reduce costs and change the profitability equation for extending networks to the underserved – though as always, mobile providers will blanket high population areas first, because that’s where the money is.  5G is also limited to line-of-sight applications where the antenna on either side of the link have to see each other.  In some satellite applications (offshore or airlines for instance), there simply will not be coverage.

When we get asked the question; 5G vs. LEO, our answer is simple – LEO.  LEOs will provide a broadband experience unlike anything satellite has provided to date.  You will get more bandwidth at lower latencies anywhere in the world.  When you compare this opportunity to the cell phone style infrastructure of 5G, you will see limitations.  Similar to the 4G/LTE rollout, countries will have varying degrees of adoption, coverage will only be available to a certain distance offshore or in the skies, and bandwidth will have to be shared with all of the other users on these services.  We use LTE today to augment our services and it does have its place in industry, but with LEO service we believe we can provide a more complete connectivity solution.

 

In a distant future when 5G begins to penetrate rural and underserved regions around the world, satellite networks may incorporate the 5G standard, which will reduce complexity and cost.  An abundance of bandwidth may ease requirements for a committed information rate.  For the next decade, however, we believe that continued advances in satellite technology in space and on the ground will deliver the high-quality, dedicated services our customers need at an ever-better performance for the price. ∎ 
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About the Author

William Mudge - Director of Satellite Capacity and Technology, USA

Will Mudge is the Director of Satellite Capacity and Technology at Speedcast developing global teleport and Low Earth Orbit Constellation strategies.

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