The Answer to the 5G Connectivity Conundrum Could Be Written in the Stars
At Sigma Systems, we’ve been thinking a lot about space. Well, the immediate 8,000 kilometres of space right above the Earth’s exosphere, to be precise – not in the vein of Matthew McConaughey’s adventures in Interstellar. Now here’s why: Sigma Systems is currently working with two different, but very active, satellite companies. One is rolling out satellite-enabled solutions across Europe and the other is launching new satellites to provide communications in a different way. This got me thinking: perhaps the answers are not to be found here on earth, but in the stars when it comes to the next thing – namely 5G.
5G is coming, and everyone wants in. From GPS-controlled farm machinery to streaming Netflix on smartphones, the hype has spread far and wide. But how can operators promise so much when countries like the UK will not be able to sunset 2G networks until 2030 because the underlying connectivity underpins services like smart metering and the Emergency Services Network? And what hope do those in rural areas have when it comes to having access to next-generation 5G services?
There are currently around 2,000 satellites orbiting the earth, used by governments and private companies for a variety of military, meteorological and communications purposes. This number is set to increase rapidly as communications providers begin to awaken to the support role satellites could play in a 5G world.
Companies like ViaSat, Inmarsat and Verizon have been using geostationary satellites to provide in-flight, defense and internet connections for many years. However, geostationary satellites generally have an unavoidable signal lag between 500 and 700 milliseconds — a far cry from the 1 millisecond goal of 5G — but satellites in lower orbits could provide the answer.
Satellites operating in Medium Earth Orbit (MEO) at 8,000 kilometers, have less than 200 milliseconds of latency, but the lowest of the proposed Low Earth Orbit (LEO) systems at 160 kilometers (equivalent to a round trip from the Golden Gate Bridge to Apple Park in Cupertino) target 50 milliseconds or less. Investing in satellite technology to support low-latency communications could therefore be a big win for CSPs as they roll out 5G. Whilst it may be too costly alone, partnering with existing satellite providers could be the answer.
The other benefit of using satellite technology to support 5G is the ability to single-handedly cover entire continents. 5G will require a lot of base stations and masts; in sparsely populated rural areas, or developing countries where infrastructure is limited, this will prove problematic.
In an interview, Tom Stroup, President of the Washington-based Satellite Industry Association, said that “satellites can bring 5G to areas where terrestrial connectivity companies consider it too expensive to build fiber-optic cables…[and]…rural areas especially stand to benefit from satellite connectivity.” So whilst fibre and 5G masts are connecting cars in Copenhagen and enabling Netflix streaming in New York City, it could be satellites that monitor crops in Montana and connect calls in sub-Saharan Africa.
In the new, interconnected digital age, the future of 5G may be out of this world.
Vice-President of Marketing