Ericsson, Qualcomm and Thales look to take 5G into space

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Ericsson, Qualcomm Technologies and Thales have announced plans to take 5G into space and across a network of Earth-orbiting satellites.

Having each conducted multiple studies and simulations, the companies plan to enter smartphone-use-case-focused testing and validation of 5G non-terrestrial networks (5G NTN).The result could effectively mean that a future 5G smartphone could use 5G connectivity anywhere on Earth and provide complete global coverage for wideband data services, including places normally only covered by legacy satellite phone systems with limited data connectivity capabilities.

The benefits of 5G connectivity via low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites are expected to include coverage in extreme geographies or remote areas across seas, oceans and other locations where terrestrial coverage is absent.

This type of connectivity would help to boost 5G smartphone subscriber roaming service capabilities, as well as enabling global connectivity for transportation, energy and health sector 5G use cases.

The space-based network could also be used as back-up support to terrestrial networks in the event of major network outages or disasters.

The expected security capabilities of 5G NTNs mean that national government communications may be a main use case, to enhance safe and secure national security and public safety government networks.

Commenting Erik Ekudden, senior vice president and chief technology officer, Ericsson, said, “This testing and validation cooperation between Ericsson, Thales and Qualcomm Technologies will be a major milestone in the history of communications as the ultimate result could effectively mean that no matter where you are on Earth high-end, secure and cost-effective connectivity will be available through collaborative 5G satellite and terrestrial connectivity.”

According to John Smee, senior vice president, engineering, Qualcomm Technologies, if 5G is to fulfill on the promise of ubiquitous connectivity, it is, “Imperative that it can also deliver network coverage in areas where terrestrial cellular networks do not exist. Our planned research with Ericsson and Thales will kick off an important step in making this vital technology a reality.”

The goal of the testing will be to validate various technology components needed to enable 5G non-terrestrial networks, including a 5G smartphone, satellite payload and 5G network pieces on the ground.

This work also aims to validate that 5G NTN can be supported in a smartphone form factor allowing future 5G smartphones to effectively become satellite-phones. Initial tests will take place in an emulated space environment in France, where the majority of European space-focused industry is based.

Ericsson plans to verify a 5G virtual RAN (vRAN) stack, modified to handle radio signals propagating (what happens to 5G radio waves travelling through the vacuum of space and the Earth’s atmosphere) via the fast-moving LEO satellites, while Thales will look to verify a 5G radio satellite payload suitable for deployment on LEO satellites. Qualcomm Technologies plans to provide test phones verifying that 5G NTN can be accessed by future 5G smartphones.

Experts will use ground-based equipment to emulate the 5G radio propagation and time delays between an equipped satellite in orbit and connecting a 5G smartphone with the 5G radio access network at different places on the Earth’s surface.

Ekudden adds, “While it is too early to say when any resulting 5G equipped prototype satellite could be launched into orbit for real operational use, the highly technical ground-based testing and validation work planned between Ericsson, Thales and Qualcomm Technologies is key to making it happen.”

As a 3GPP-backed technology, 5G NTNs will be able to capitalise on a large ecosystem of standardised products and components. The new specification also enables the inclusion of NTN technologies in 5G devices, providing opportunities for technology vendors to scale 5G NTN compatibility across devices.