Arthur C. Clarke’s profound 1945 essay introduces the concept of geospatial orbit and claims that with three satellites in such an orbit around the equator it would be possible to achieve global communications.
Today, the cost of launching satellites has dropped dramatically, so it is now possible to operate a constellation of satellites in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) capable of providing broadband to everyone.
But is this technology overkill, especially since 5G cellular is well on its way to establishing itself as the next generation of cellular?
The 5G half-truth
Gartner Vice President Analyst Bill Ray believes there is a big problem with 5G. Ray is the lead author of one of Gartner’s “Maverick” research notes, which provides a different than the norm perspective on 5G mobile network deployments.
Gartner predicts that by 2027, 35% of large enterprises will win the majority of their new customers from areas where reliable connectivity is lacking. Ray’s research suggests that 5G cannot deliver on its use promises outside of small islands of commercial deployment and vertically integrated examples.
In this podcast, Ray speaks to Computer Weekly about the challenges of 5G rollout and why he thinks it’s not delivering the connectivity businesses and consumers demand. “5G is a technology that’s looking for a problem to solve,” he says.
According to Ray, 5G was developed by mobile network operators who wanted a reason to expand their operations and increase their revenues. “It wasn’t designed to solve a specific problem. Nobody sat down and said that 4G is not good enough and that’s why we need to do 5G,” he says.
Bill Ray, Gartner
As the industry operates on a 10-year cycle, “we will have 6G by 2030,” adds Ray. “We don’t yet know what it will be used for, but we will have it.”
While the headline-grabbing figure for 5G connectivity is the 20Gbps peak bandwidth, Ray says even the sustained 100Mbps bandwidth figure offered over 5G exceeds the bandwidth anyone can consume on a mobile phone.
“I think the main problem with 5G is that it’s not better than 4G – it doesn’t change the experience, it doesn’t make 4G better and it doesn’t improve internet access,” he says. “Even if you stream all the time, there’s a limit to how much you can stream. Once you get past 70Mbps or 80Mbps, there is nothing you can do.”
While 5G makes it technically possible to download gigabits of mobile data per second, Ray believes humans aren’t capable of consuming that much data. “Actually,” he says, “you can hardly cram that amount of data into the phone’s memory at that rate, so all that data is pouring in, but you can’t do anything with it.”
While there are applications that require extremely high bandwidth, today’s smartphones require far less. In fact, Gartner research suggests that most enterprise applications, including streaming applications and video conferencing, only require around 6 Mbps, which falls well within 4G’s range.
Despite the high bandwidth headlines being touted by mobile operators, Ray believes the key benefit of 5G networking is its ability to provide ultra-reliable, low-latency communications (URLLC). “Instead of being connected to one base station, your mobile phone, car or drone connects to three or four base stations at the same time. That way, if a base station goes missing or the connection is lost, you’ll stay connected. It just slows down. That way you can have absolutely reliable connections,” he says.
Although it’s in the technical specification for 5G, Ray says URLLC hasn’t been deployed yet and we’re years away from having it.
The satellite age
In the research paper, Ray and his Gartner colleagues, Roger Williams, Alfonso Velosa, and Marty Resnick, discuss why satellite internet has the potential to deliver ubiquitous connectivity in a way that eclipses 5G.
The ability to use low Earth orbit has significantly reduced the cost of deploying satellites in space. Ray says these satellites are also a lot cheaper now.
“Ironically, they’re cheaper because of cell phones,” he says. “We’ve spent the last 20 years making antennas, sorting out radio frequencies, developing processors and batteries and all that stuff that goes into a smartphone. This technology is perfect for satellites: it is miniaturized, lightweight, robust and waterproof.”
Today, LEO satellites are mainly launched with rockets. To cover the entire planet, a satellite operator needs hundreds, possibly thousands, of satellites. Fortunately, the missiles have improved significantly, making them easier to use. Virgin Galactic has even tested launching a rocket with a satellite payload attached to a Boeing 747 aircraft.
The Falcon 9 rocket from SpaceX, founded by Elon Musk, recently launched 50 LEO satellites into space in one fell swoop. Starship, the company’s newest missile, is currently undergoing testing. When complete, Ray says Starship should be able to place several hundred satellites into low-Earth orbit on each launch.
As the number of satellites that can be deployed per rocket launch increases, so does the cost. According to Ray, SpaceX’s Musk has ambitions to bring the cost of launching a satellite down to a very optimistic figure of $10 per kilogram. So while hundreds of LEO satellites may be needed, the SpaceX-made satellites weigh just 260kg, meaning it could cost as little as $2,600 to launch.
Why Use Satellite Internet?
According to Ray, Starlink, the satellite internet-focused arm of SpaceX, already provides home internet access to half a million people around the world. “You can get a Starlink dish, put it outside, and get anywhere from 100Mbps to 200Mbps internet access for $110 a month. It’s already happening and changing people’s lives today.”
SpaceX is not alone. China has SatNet, a constellation of 12,992 satellites. The UK’s OneWeb 648 satellite constellation has now merged with EutelSat, which operates a 36-strong fleet of Geostationary Orbit (GEO) satellites. The European Union has announced €2.4 billion in funding as part of a €6 billion European satellite constellation. And through Amazon’s Project Kuiper, the e-commerce giant plans to launch 3,236 LEO satellites using rockets from Arianespace, Blue Origin and United Launch Alliance (ULA).
“Suddenly,” Ray says, “having these satellites in low Earth orbit makes sense.”
Another significant opportunity for satellite internet is mobile backhaul. For example, Ray says that KDDI is deploying 1,200 base stations in Japan with satellite backhaul via Starlink. No high-speed fiber optic connection is required – all that is needed is a satellite dish and electricity. Power can even be provided by a diesel generator or solar panels, allowing operators to deploy mobile internet base stations almost anywhere.
“It’s getting a lot cheaper to build cellular infrastructure now,” says Ray. While in the past satellite communication would have been the only option in remote locations, now wherever a fiber optic link to a base station to be installed is required, these unnecessary costs can be avoided by using a satellite link instead.
Direct cell phone connection
“You can go a step further because a cell phone can send a signal about 500 km away,” says Ray, making it possible to use cell phones to lock directly to a satellite without using a cell phone infrastructure is required.
That’s exactly what satellite mobile operator Lynk Mobile’s startup has done. In April 2022, Lynk launched and deployed Lynk Tower 1. According to Charles Miller, Lynk CEO and co-founder, the company is poised to begin commercial service later this year and will offer what he claims is “the world’s first true satellite direct dial phone service to citizens around the world “.
Nokia recently signed a deal with another startup, AST SpaceMobile, using its AirScale Single RAN equipment with AST SpaceMobile to provide mobile services to new and existing subscribers in regions not currently served by terrestrial communications networks. This includes the global networking of devices on land, at sea or in flight, says AST SpaceMobile.
Scott Wisniewski, Chief Strategy Officer at AST SpaceMobile, said of the partnership in July: “In the coming months, we are scheduled to launch our BlueWalker 3 test satellite into 64m low Earth orbit2 Phased array antenna for direct-to-cell connectivity. With this satellite, we plan to conduct tests around the world with leading mobile network operators, using Nokia’s technology solutions on the ground.”
Challenges for satellite broadband
The big question, Ray says, is the economics of satellite broadband.
“Starlink plans to deploy more than 30,000 satellites. With 30,000 satellites, each lasting five years, you swap out 500 satellites every month to maintain the network,” he says.
Given that the current Falcon 9 rocket can launch 50 satellites at a time, Ray says Starlink would need to launch satellites every three days just to keep the network running. Of course, there will be larger launch vehicles like SpaceX’s spacecraft when it becomes operational. But these are unknowns.
There’s also the prospect of making LEO satellites in space, but that’s science fiction. “We’re pushing the boundaries,” adds Ray. “We are talking about manufacturing in space and flexible configurations. We have to do these things because the possibilities are so great.”