Can non-terrestrial networks provide ubiquitous connectivity?

Non-terrestrial networks (NTNs) have become a hot topic amongst telcos, with many suggesting that they hold the key to unlocking ubiquitous coverage. With a focus on recent partnerships and advancements, this article explores the evolving landscape of satellite connectivity and potential for widespread adoption.

What are satellites and non-terrestrial networks (NTNs)?

Satellite connectivity refers to the ability to establish and maintain communication links using satellites orbiting the Earth. This form of connectivity enables data transmission, including voice, video, and internet services, over vast distances and diverse geographical areas. Satellites act as relay stations, receiving signals from ground-based transmitters and broadcasting them to other locations on Earth.

NTNs encompass a broader concept that includes not only satellite-based communication but also other forms of non-terrestrial communication networks, such as high-altitude platforms.

What are the different types of non-terrestrial networks?

There are various types of non-terrestrial networks, each with its own characteristics:

  • Geostationary (GEO) Satellites: These satellites orbit the Earth at the same speed as the Earth’s rotation, remaining fixed relative to a specific point on the planet’s surface. Positioned at high altitudes, typically around 35,800 kilometers, GEO satellites provide extensive coverage over a specific region.
  • Medium Earth Orbit (MEO) Satellites: Positioned at altitudes ranging from 8,000 to 18,000 kilometers, MEO satellites orbit the Earth in several hours. They are often employed for applications that require a balance between coverage and latency, such as providing data connectivity to enterprises and governments.
  • Low Earth Orbit (LEO) Satellites: LEO satellites orbit at lower altitudes, typically between 160 and 2,000 kilometers. They have shorter orbital periods, often around 90 minutes, and offer lower latency due to their proximity to the Earth. LEO satellites are intended primarly for broadband internet services and global communication. These are the newest form of satellite emerging only in the last 5 years, and include SpaceX’s Starlink service.
  • High-Altitude Platform Stations (HAPS): HAPS are aircraft stationed in the stratosphere at altitudes between 17 and 22 kilometres. These platforms can project signals to the ground with directional antennas, providing cellular connectivity to standard mobile devices. HAPS are the most nascent form of NTN, with most of the market still in trial phase, powered in various ways, including solar, hydrogen and fuel engines.
  • Multi-orbit systems: Satellite constellations combine satellites from one or more of these orbital configurations to optimise coverage, capacity, and latency for specific applications. For example, a multi-orbit satellite constellation might utilise GEO satellites for broad coverage, MEO satellites for regional coverage with reduced latency, and LEO satellites for high-capacity, low-latency connectivity in densely populated areas. In future these may also include HAPS. By integrating services from multiple orbits, these systems aim to deliver comprehensive and efficient communication services tailored to diverse user needs.

Figure 1: Different types of non-terrestrial networks

different types of non-terrestrial networks

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Why are we talking about NTNs now?

Need for ubiquitous coverage

NTNs can play a crucial role in addressing communication needs in remote or underserved areas where traditional terrestrial networks are not economical to build out further. These areas pose a significant challenge to operators who are under pressure from governments and consumers to provide service, but are restricted by poor ROI on sites which will experience very low traffic. Currently, NTNs emerge as the most encouraging solution with potential to overcome this challenge and enable telcos to offer ubiquitous coverage to their customers.They can be used for a wide range of applications, including broadband internet access, mobile communication, broadcasting, and data transfer for enterprises and governments.

Technological advances

Advances in satellite technology, including enhanced data transmission rates and higher bandwidth (as well as lower latency from GEOs and HAPS), have greatly improved NTNs’ proposition to telcos. A lot of attention has also stemmed from the increasing frequency of satellite launches due to a big fall in launch costs and timeframes. A decade ago, there were roughly 1,000 satellites in orbit. Now, this number has surged to approximately 7,500, and projections suggest it will surpass 27,000 by 2030. The promise of satellite connectivity is becoming increasingly evident, as satellite firms assert their capability to provide comprehensive broadband coverage and eradicate connectivity gaps entirely.

Evolving standards

Moreover, evolving standards mean that NTNs can be more easily incorporated into mobile connectivity. For instance, The U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has approved regulations that enable satellite operators to use radio waves from terrestrial mobile partners to maintain connectivity for smartphone users beyond the coverage of traditional cell towers. This framework, known as Supplemental Coverage from Space (SCS), allows SCS providers to operate as a secondary service to Mobile Satellite Service (MSS) providers, which has the potential to eliminate connectivity gaps and provide a backup in space in case ground-based systems are damaged or destroyed. This is the first such framework to be approved globally.

Another example of changing standards is the new 5G Non-Terrestrial Networks (NTN) standard that is currently being developed by 3GPP in collaboration with the satellite industry. This standardised solution aims to facilitate seamless roaming between terrestrial and satellite networks, using standard cellular devices. By employing standard cellular devices, 5G NTN eliminates the necessity for proprietary terminals and fragmented satellite constellations. This development has the potential to significantly expand the market for mobile satellite services.

Other notable changes are 3GPP releases 17, 18 and 19, which have set the foundation for universal messaging via satellite, as well as latest WRT round, which confirmed that Ku frequency band will be reserved only to SatCos until at least 2032. These standards ensure that NTNs can be seamlessly integrated into mobile connectivity, offering enhanced convenience, scalability, and market potential for satellite-based communication services.

Recent developments in NTN market

The market is evolving quickly and telcos have already partnered with NTN providers to get closer to ubiquitous coverage. We have outlined two important partnerships which show how seriously some telcos are taking the NTN opportunity.

#1 Vodafone partners with Amazon’s Project Kuiper to expand 5G coverage

Vodafone has announced plans to collaborate with Amazon’s Project Kuiper, a low Earth orbit satellite constellation, to enhance its 4G and 5G networks in Europe and Africa. This partnership will utilise Project Kuiper’s satellites to connect mobile base stations in remote areas, eliminating the need for traditional fibre-based or fixed wireless links. Amazon is set to test prototype satellites soon, with plans to deploy production satellites by 2024 for its network, which will compete with Elon Musk’s Starlink, OneWeb and others. Together, Vodafone and Amazon aim to provide high-speed broadband services to underserved communities globally and offer connectivity solutions to businesses. As noted by Vodafone CEO Margherita Della Valle, this collaboration is going to complement their existing work with AST SpaceMobile to develop a space-based mobile network accessible via standard mobile phones.

#2 T-Mobile partners with Starlinkm for Coverage Above and Beyond

T-Mobile and SpaceX have announced a partnership, Coverage Above and Beyond, to revolutionise cell phone connectivity by leveraging SpaceX’s Starlink satellite constellation and T-Mobile’s wireless network. This collaboration aims to provide near-complete coverage across most of the U.S., including remote areas previously unreachable by traditional cell signals. By utilising existing smartphones and Starlink satellites, the service promises to eliminate dead zones, ensuring connectivity practically anywhere with a view of the sky. Initially focusing on text messaging, the service will expand to voice and data coverage later on. T-Mobile also plans to extend this global initiative by inviting other carriers to collaborate for comprehensive global connectivity.

Will NTNs unlock ubiquitous coverage?

NTNs are seen as a viable route to ubiquitous coverage and while it is still early days, we expect them to play a greater role in providing us with connectivity as the technology continues to progress. What is crucial is the question of who will be providing this connectivity? Of course, telcos currently sit in the driving seat for forming partnerships with NTN providers, but Apple’s agreement with Globalstar to provide emergency messaging caught the telcos by surprise. We are closely monitoring the market to see who is able to capitalise on the burgeoning opportunity.

What is certain is that the growing interest and investment in satellite connectivity means a promising future for NTNs as a mainstream communication solution. As industry players continue to innovate and collaborate, we may be approaching a pivotal moment where satellite connectivity becomes more accessible and ubiquitous, transforming the way we connect and communicate globally.

You can find more information about satellite connectivity in our recently published report “New satellite connectivity: Rising star or pie in the sky?

Gabija Cepurnaite

Author

Gabija Cepurnaite

Consultant

Gabija Cepurnaite is a Consultant at STL Partners, specialising in edge computing and MEC APIs.

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