satellite orbiting

Satellite-based 5G network to provide global coverage for smartphones

Ericsson, Qualcomm and Thales have announced plans to create a global 5G network using a constellation of Earth-orbiting satellites.

The firms hope their network will allow smartphones to access a 5G connection almost 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.

It is envisaged that the widespread connectivity will 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 for terrestrial networks in the event of major outages or disasters.

The expected security capabilities of the space-based 5G network mean that national government communications could also be routed through it to enhance national security.

The technology will be tested with a 5G smartphone, satellite payload as well as 5G network pieces on the ground to demonstrate its viability. The work also aims to prove that space-based 5G networks can be supported in a smartphone form factor. Initial tests will take place in an emulated space environment in France, where the majority of European space-focused industry is based.

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.

Using satellites to improve smartphone connectivity has been trialled by other firms in the past. In 2020, Vodafone backed a satellite-based system designed to improve its 4G and 5G mobile coverage that didn’t require any specialised hardware in connected handsets.

Erik Ekudden, Ericsson’s chief technology officer, 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 - in the middle of an ocean or the remotest forest - high-end, secure and cost-effective connectivity will be available through collaborative 5G satellite and terrestrial connectivity.”

John Smee, Qualcomm’s senior vice-president of engineering, said: “For 5G 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, whether that be over oceans or in remote areas.

“Our planned research with Ericsson and Thales will kick off an important step in making this vital technology a reality. We are looking forward to what this collaboration can accomplish.”

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