Insights Non-terrestrial mobile networks – the final frontier for 5G?

5G network discussions typically focus on terrestrial mobile network deployment, often prioritising 5G service delivery to areas with existing 3G or 4G coverage. Mobile network operators (MNOs) have undergone a sustained consolidation period in recent years, driven in no small way by profit margin performance, increasing capital costs, supply chain challenges and regulatory intervention. As mentioned in our previous article, the UK Government’s decision to ban Huawei equipment from UK 5G networks has also highlighted the current resilience risk from having too few suppliers for critical 5G network equipment.

Despite supply issues, demand for mobile services isn’t slowing down. Estimated global market value for 5G infrastructure is over $60 billion in 2028 with over 50% Compound Annual Growth Rate from just $3b in 2021. As highlighted by McKinsey, MNOs will drive this infrastructure growth to meet growing traffic demand by prioritising 5G investments over upgrading existing 4G capacity.

This however all relates to expensive deployments on planet Earth. Advances in wireless technology, miniaturisation and satellite economics have improved remarkably over recent years, not to mention increased connectivity demand from remote locations, cruise ships and flights. Very soon we could see satellite-based 5G non-terrestrial mobile networks (5G NTN) serving remote areas and providing a capable back-up for terrestrial networks (such as during outages or disasters) offering superior performance to traditional satellite connections.

The 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) is the primary international engineering body that defines common standards and protocols for mobile networks. 3GPP’s “release 8” for 4G LTE in 2008 became the global 4G standard ultimately utilised by c.600 LTE networks in 189 countries.

5G standards began with “release 15” in 2015. While initially focusing on consumer mobile services, MNOs are increasingly offering 5G services to support enterprise, massive IoT and Machine-Type Communication use cases, which is expected to contribute significantly to further demand. 5G NTN is supported by 3GPP releases 15, 16 and 17, with release 18 introducing “5G-Advanced” integrating more intelligence into wireless networks, including using machine-based learning techniques.

In March 2022, 3GPP gave the green light to Ericsson, Thales and Qualcomm Technologies to test 5G connectivity via low Earth orbit (LEO) satellites. The test involved verifying a 5G virtual RAN stack travelling through the thermosphere propagated by LEO satellites, testing 5G radio antenna suitable for deployment on LEO satellites, and verifying 5G signal access on the ground.

As there aren’t any 5G equipped satellites in orbit yet, initial tests were conducted in an emulated space environment in France. According to Ericsson, smartphone handsets would only require minor hardware and software adjustments to work with 5G NTN technology.

Across the Channel at its newly built space park HQ in Leicester, AST SpaceMobile also announced its intention to compete in this space by acquiring Nokia’s AirScale Single RAN equipment, which connects devices globally on land, at sea or in flight, in a five-year global 4G and 5G deal. AST, with investment from Rakuten, Vodafone, American Tower and UBS O’Connor, plan to launch BlueWalker 3, a LEO satellite, for testing in September. This mobile NTN, leveraging proven technology, would be directly accessible for users with standard mobile phones providing 2G, 3G, 4G LTE, 5G as well as narrowband IoT connectivity. AST stated it isn’t trying to compete with existing MNOs, instead providing service continuity backup by filling in any temporary lost links in a user’s existing mobile network service using its own technology.

In the short term, 5G NTN has the potential to complement terrestrial 5G networks by plugging coverage gaps and improving reliability. In the longer term, as technology advancements continue to improve NTN throughput, bandwidth and stability, 5G NTN could provide primary mobile services to users regardless of location and with significantly lower infrastructure costs.

LEO satellite constellations have proliferated over the past few years due to operators such as SpaceX and OneWeb launching thousands of satellites providing LEO broadband coverage. AST estimates they can achieve global mobile coverage with just 168 satellites, which at $10 million each satellite means a total infrastructure cost of $1.68b. While NTN technology has a long way to go until it can effectively compete against terrestrial networks, 5G NTN has the exciting potential to achieve baseline global coverage at a fraction of the infrastructure cost of a terrestrial 5G network.

Besides overcoming these technical challenges, 5G NTN raises some interesting regulatory and commercial questions. Regulators are already dealing with competing spectrum demands for terrestrial 5G, satellite and next generation wi-fi. 5G NTN could become a serious alternative mobile network strategy as telecoms operators consider more cost-effective means to push into further service areas and force market participants to revisit business models underpinning existing terrestrial 5G network rollout and cost recovery.

We’ll explore further applications of 5G and regulations in the technology and telecoms sectors in future articles.

We frequently advise clients on potential legal, regulatory and commercial issues arising at the forefront of converging technologies in the telecoms sector. Get in touch if you’d like to have a further discussion about your project and we’d be delighted to assist.