5G Satellite Spectrum

Since its inception, mobile networking has existed independently of satellite technology. But the development of 5G architecture holds promise for a new generation of satellite operators to help provide unprecedented connectivity and futuristic applications with a tech focus.

Though satellite internet faces significant challenges in bringing broadband to users on a wide scale, many companies have already begun to deploy it. The development of the 5G satellite spectrum offers a great complement to burgeoning 5G terrestrial connectivity.

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Standards for the 5G Satellite Spectrum

Traditional communication satellites orbit the earth from about twenty-two thousand miles up. Their “geosynchronous orbit” means that geostationary satellites move in synchronicity with the earth, so that the satellite remains directly over one point as the earth rotates. Ground-based antennas point directly at the satellite to receive a signal.

Characteristics of the 5G Satellite

Unlike a geostationary satellite, a 5G satellite circles in a low earth orbit (LEO), generally between three hundred and twelve hundred miles above the earth. These LEO satellites must move almost 2.5 times as fast as geostationary satellites do to remain in orbit. As a result, a low earth orbit satellite remains in contact with a ground transmitter for a much shorter amount of time. To maintain seamless coverage, communication from the ground passes from one LEO satellite to the next across the satellite constellation.

At the same time, the low orbit of a low earth orbit satellite significantly reduces latency compared to its geostationary counterpart. That means an LEO satellite can receive and transmit data much more quickly, which minimizes delay for the end user.

International Agreement on the 5G Satellite Spectrum

Satellites, like all wireless communication, talk to people on the ground through invisible radio frequencies, called “spectrum.” Scientists measure frequencies using hertz, meaning the number of wave cycles per second.

A satellite’s purpose determines the best frequency for it to use. The frequency is an integral part of the satellite’s construction and doesn’t change after launch. Satellites generally transmit on a frequency between 1.5 and 51.5 gigahertz (a gigahertz, or GHz, equals one billion hertz). High-speed broadband operates at the higher end of the spectrum.

Without international standards, one country’s use of the 5G satellite spectrum could interfere with another’s. The International Telecommunications Union (ITU), part of the United Nations, coordinates the allocation of frequencies globally. Although it manages global telecommunications, the ITU does not engage in the actual implementation of 5G or other technologies.

For that, a separate consortium called the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) unites seven organizations that develop telecommunications standards worldwide. These organizational partners specify which technologies constitute 5G wireless, aiming for global consistency.

In the United States, the National Telecommunications and Information Agency manages the federal government’s use of the spectrum, while the FCC regulates other uses.

Standardization bodies worldwide are working to integrate 5G new radio (NR) with satellite technology. 5G NR is the new global standard for 5G networks. The 3GPP provides a forum for industry leaders, government bodies, and academic institutions to work together to deploy new frequency bands to accelerate the adoption of 5G networking worldwide.
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Coverage and Capacity for the 5G Satellite Spectrum

Physics limits the amount of data that a frequency can carry, creating a special set of wave spectrum challenges. Because existing 4G LTE networks are reaching these theoretical upper limits, 5G networks must make use of new areas of the spectrum.

New Spectrum Possibilities

5G can run on a wider range of spectrum than 4G LTE, the current standard. Telecommunications companies use different approaches with regard to new available frequencies. For example, Verizon Communications emphasizes millimeter wave (mmWave) bands, which exist in the 24- to 100-GHz range.

Millimeter wave bands are short-range, high-frequency bands that deliver download speeds of multiple gigabits per second and can handle large numbers of users simultaneously. However, mmWaves can neither travel long distances nor penetrate obstacles and thus require many small network cells. Small cells—which contain a radio, antenna, power, and fiber connection—mount on utility poles, street lights, or similar structures and strengthen coverage in densely populated areas.

On the other hand, AT&T and T-Mobile focus on low-band and midband frequencies. These 5G networks operate at frequencies below 6 GHz—known as sub-6 networks. Unlike mmWaves, these lower-frequency radio waves can penetrate obstacles and travel long distances. T-Mobile, therefore, will focus its 5G technology on servicing rural areas, where its low-band frequencies will provide coverage, though not lightning speeds.

The Future of Cell Towers

By the year 2026, global mobile data use will reach 226 billion gigabytes every month. 5G networks will carry more than half this traffic, according to an Ericsson report. Thus LEO satellites likely will complement—not replace—existing cell phone towers.

Furthermore, certain smart devices depend on their onboard computing technologies to integrate with a local base station to provide near-real-time latency. For example, even a slight delay in communication with a satellite could affect the safety of autonomous vehicles, which rely upon near-instantaneous decision-making.

Two other areas being explored are physical layer security and Quantum Key Distribution (QKD). Both approaches aim to improve the security of 5G communications. Physical-layer security is a new approach that takes advantage of naturally occurring flaws in the wireless channel, such as fading or noise, to provide additional network security. Quantum Key Distribution relies on principles of quantum mechanics to create tamper-proof encryption.

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Largest Shares in the 5G Satellite Spectrum

Satellite integration into the 5G ecosystem falls into three primary categories, according to the 3GPP.

  • Scalability: distribution of video streaming and multibroadcast services
  • Continuity: backup for terrestrial services as well as service for users on the move
  • Ubiquity: delivery of 5G to underserved areas

More Than Smartphones

In the United States, about nineteen million people lack access to broadband internet. Some wireless carriers hesitate to deploy resources in areas of low population density because of the expense and difficulty of installing infrastructure. Satellite companies, on the other hand, can offer broadband to underserved rural or remote areas with minimum terrestrial buildout.

5G-enabled satellites can transmit high data rates globally. 5G deployment thus holds great promise for providing connectivity to passengers in airplanes, ships, or other vehicles, who clearly would not have seamless access to cell phone towers as they move.

By the year 2023, the number of devices connected to the internet will outnumber the world’s population by more than a three-to-one ratio, according to Cisco. The massive volume of smart machines and other devices within the Internet of Things affects network load. The 5G satellite spectrum can provide an alternative for devices that function well with a slight connection delay, such as IoT devices and multibroadcast systems.

Additionally, in the event of a disaster that damages the infrastructure of the terrestrial 5G ecosystem, satellite networks can serve as a communication backup.

Leaders in 5G Satellite Technology

A new kind of space race is emerging to deploy LEO satellite constellations in the latest 5G rollout. In October 2020, aerospace company SpaceX began offering satellite internet to a limited number of customers. Users connect to Starlink, a constellation of 1,000 LEO satellites.

In December 2020, SpaceX won more than $885 million in the FCC’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund public auction, which aims to bring broadband to rural communities. Starlink plans to continue to invest in its 5G network, with long-term plans for thirty thousand satellites.

Amazon also gained the FCC’s approval to launch its own constellation of 3,236 satellites, which would be in full service by 2029. In preparation, Amazon has purchased nine Atlas V rockets to facilitate the launch of LEO satellites for its Kuiper System.

OneWeb, a satellite company partially owned by the British government, has launched 74 of its planned 648 satellites. OneWeb plans to sell 5G satellite services to governments and transportation entities that provide internet service to airplanes and other vehicles.

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Requirements for Next-Generation Technology in the 5G Spectrum

If the 4G rollout is any indication, a complete overhaul of communications infrastructure takes about seven to ten years. But companies built the 4G LTE infrastructure with the 5G network in mind. Low-band and midband frequencies can take advantage of current 4G LTE equipment. The wider 5G spectrum, including mmWaves, requires different hardware.

5G Spectrum Equipment

For mmWave technology, users cannot use a coaxial cable to connect the radio interface to the antenna. Coaxial cables attenuate a signal quickly. As a result, the mmWave loses significant strength by the time it reaches the antenna, rendering it useless for transmitting information.

Therefore, 5G networks that rely on high-frequency broadband need a new type of hardware: integrated radio units (IRUs). Rather than mounting an antenna on a pole, IRUs bolt the antenna and radio together in one box. Cities such as Sacramento, one of the first markets to launch 5G residential broadband, established public-private partnerships to address city ordinances and make adjustments to integrate high-frequency 5G.

Evolution to 5G

Companies seeking to expand into low-coverage areas are investing in newly available midband 5G C-band spectrum, a subset of sub-6 that refers specifically to frequencies ranging between 3 and 4 GHz. Using the midband spectrum is a compromise between reach and capacity.

In March 2021, Verizon spent $52.9 billion at an FCC C-band spectrum auction. Satellite operators also use the C-band spectrum, which will thus require coordination and sharing. The combination of ultra-low latency with high data speeds—plus unprecedented reach—will pave the way for the next generation of smart technologies to use the 5G satellite spectrum.

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