20-09-2023 | By Robin Mitchell

Satellite internet is hardly new, and the number of low-earth orbiting satellites has skyrocketed over the last decade, but one technology that many are now awaiting is space-based 5G networks. What challenges do 5G networks face on Earth, why could space be the solution, and what challenges would such infrastructure face?

image illustrating 5G fifth generation cellular network technology and a broadband access 3D concept.

What challenges do 5G networks face on Earth? 

Unlike its predecessors, the launch of 5G has not provided users with a substantial difference in performance or usability. Furthermore, the numerous industries that 5G had expected to service have failed to realise, with automated drone deliveries not having moved an inch and connected cars still a dream. 

In fact, for most users, having a 5G connection on their mobile rarely results in any significant boost in performance. Of course, 5G networks do offer lower latencies, higher download speeds, and more simultaneous connections, but none of these were a real concern with 4G. If anything, mobile users want to see more reliable 4G networks over the installation of new 5G networks, especially when considering that many users are yet to upgrade their devices so that they can actually take advantage of 5G.

Infrastructure and Economic Impediments

But when it comes to the physical implementation of 5G, there are numerous challenges that persist, which have resulted in mobile operators installing 5G in very specific locations (as opposed to a general rollout of 5G in all areas). 

By far, the biggest challenge faced by 5G is the use of higher frequencies. While higher frequencies support greater bandwidths (as well as more simultaneously connected devices), they also have significantly reduced range, meaning that each 5G tower covers a smaller area compared to its 4G counterpart. As such, 5G networks require more towers to be installed, and while this may not be an issue for urban areas, residential areas have generally resisted their installation. 

This requirement for more towers then contributes to the next issue faced by 5G: cost. With the need for more towers (and newer technologies), 5G networks are much more expensive to integrate compared to previous technologies. Considering that many mobile users are content with 4G, there has been less adoption of 5G than expected, further impacting revenue streams for mobile operators.

But not only are 5G towers themselves expensive, but the land needed to build them also incurs steep costs. Additionally, tower installations also need permission from local regulators and councils, and this also incurs costs. Thus, when considering that 5G towers have limited range, little adoption, few devices taking full advantage of their offerings, and the need for licenses and special permissions, it becomes clear why 5G has continued to struggle over the past few years. 

Could space-based 5G be the solution?

In light of the numerous challenges faced with terrestrial 5G networks, one concept that has started to gain attention is space-based 5G networks. Simply put, the idea of space-based 5G networks is to utilise low-earth orbiting (LEO) satellites to provide 5G network connectivity.

The concept of Space-based 5G networks is gaining traction in the telecommunications industry, and Low-Earth Orbiting Satellites for 5G promise to overcome the terrestrial challenges that 5G currently faces.

The idea of using LEO satellites for internet and communications is far from new, with numerous companies such as SpaceX who have already started to provide such services. But when it comes to modern mobile networks, only terrestrial infrastructure has been used to provide this connectivity. 

Currently, no commercial satellite has been launched that is capable of providing a 5G mobile connection, but there are numerous plans by multiple companies to do just this in the coming years. For example, Lockheed Martin has made it clear that they intend to develop 5G constellations to provide a reliable and secure network that is resistant to ground-based disruptions (such as natural disasters and military conflicts). 

One common element amongst 5G satellite plans is that they are not designed to handle all 5G traffic and instead act as a backup should there be issues with terrestrial services. Additionally, these satellites would also be used to provide 5G connectivity in remote areas where terrestrial infrastructure doesn’t exist (such as mountains, deserts, and oceans). 

But how soon could such a constellation be operational? According to a report from Juniper Research, it is believed that the first commercial 5G satellites could reach orbit by 2024, and a total of 110 million 5G connections made to such satellites by 2030. Exactly how mobile devices would communicate with LEO satellites is still yet to be determined (due to potential challenges with communication), but considering that the technology to integrate satellite technologies into mobile devices already exists (such as the Qualcomm-Iridium partnership), it wouldn’t take long for modern devices to feature satellite capabilities. 

With the rise of 5G satellite connectivity, the landscape of mobile communication is poised for a significant transformation.

The Financial Implications of 5G Satellite Networks

Recent research from Juniper Research, a leading expert in telecommunications markets, suggests a promising financial future for 5G satellite networks. The research indicates that operators could generate an additional $17 billion in revenue from 3GPP (Third-generation Partnership Project)‑compliant 5G satellite networks between 2024 and 2030. This potential revenue surge underscores the importance of operators forming partnerships with Satellite Network Operators (SNOs). These SNOs have the expertise to launch next-generation satellite hardware and manage the resulting networks efficiently. This highlights the immense 5G satellite revenue potential in the coming years.

The research further predicts the inaugural commercial launch of a 5G satellite network in 2024. By 2030, there could be over 110 million 3GPP‑compliant 5G satellite connections. To maximise this growth, operators are encouraged to form immediate partnerships with SNOs capable of launching GSO (Geostationary Orbit) satellites. These satellites, synchronised with the Earth's rotation, provide consistent connectivity, ensuring a reliable 5G connection for users. This projection indicates a promising 5G satellite network adoption rate in the next decade.

Moreover, operators can leverage their existing billing relationships with mobile subscribers and businesses to boost 5G satellite connectivity revenue over the next seven years. This pre-existing relationship will facilitate the rapid adoption of satellite connectivity by integrating it into current terrestrial networks. As the development of 6G networks accelerates, the research suggests that operators will increasingly depend on SNOs for service provision.

What challenges would such infrastructure face?

While the idea of space-based 5G satellites may sound like a great idea, there are numerous challenges that they would face (many of which are identical to those faced by Starlink). However, the challenges of 5G satellite implementation cannot be overlooked.

To start, the distances involved between devices on the ground and satellites in space will undoubtedly impact the bandwidth capabilities of the network. Otherwise, mobile devices will consume too much energy to maintain substantial download and upload speeds, thus reducing their battery life. This means that satellite-based 5G would more likely be a backup service as opposed to a primary connection source. 

Another challenge faced with space-based infrastructure is the need to get satellites into orbit. While SpaceX may be putting hundreds of small satellites into space, they are yet to prove that this is a cost-effective scheme. Even though this could be helped with the use of fewer satellites that are physically larger and more capable, the need for many satellites (to increase coverage) introduces costs and reliability issues

Overall, 5G networks have proven to be problematic due to their low uptake and expensive nature, and while satellite-based 5G networks could help to some degree with coverage, they, too, have their fair share of issues. Will these satellites become popular? Who knows! Should these satellites be deployed? Probably not, but if a market can be found for them, then all that can be said is best of luck!

The future of 5G satellite networks remains an exciting frontier to explore.

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By Robin Mitchell

Robin Mitchell is an electronic engineer who has been involved in electronics since the age of 13. After completing a BEng at the University of Warwick, Robin moved into the field of online content creation, developing articles, news pieces, and projects aimed at professionals and makers alike. Currently, Robin runs a small electronics business, MitchElectronics, which produces educational kits and resources.