Telecoms.com periodically invites expert third parties to share their views on the industry’s most pressing issues. In this piece Peter Kibutu, Advanced Technology Lead – NTNs at TTP, argues that smaller, Open RAN-based, telecoms vendors have an advantage in the LEO satellite market.
The high value of filling coverage blackspots, and eventually providing universal coverage, has started the battle for 5G satellite communications market share. Over recent months, we’ve seen Apple announce its intentions to offer emergency service using satellite provider Globalstar, and Qualcomm partnering with Iridium to bring satellite connectivity to Android devices.
To date, most equivalent services have been developed independently, using non-standardised, proprietary technology. In 2023, we will see the capabilities of networks expand, and greater collaboration and convergence, as 5G non-terrestrial networks (NTNs) are built based on 3GPP standards as defined in Release 17.
It’s no surprise then that the 5G satellite market, which stood at USD 2,548.2 million in 2021, is expected to grow to USD 33,896.7 million by 2030. Companies across the telecoms and satellite sector are working out their roles in this burgeoning new ecosystem. But what is yet to be determined is which companies will be the major infrastructure players in this space. It is now inevitable that the market will converge around open standards, which will align the satellite market with the current 3GPP ecosystem for 5G NTN. But will it be the major network equipment manufacturers (NEMs) or alternative, smaller network vendors that will win the space race?
The scale of 5G satellite networks
The assumption may be that the NEMs, who have proven performance in networks across the globe, will dominate the market. They have the technology that has performed across different environments, the relationships and the supply chains to boot. However, their role in 5G satellites will be defined by their willingness to address this market.
The NEMs are accustomed to selling their equipment as large turnkey network solutions – often thousands of base stations at a time – to terrestrial network operators. However, NTN providers operate networks with reduced capacity, typically requiring an order of magnitude fewer base stations than vendors are accustomed to selling to a terrestrial operator.
Furthermore, the larger network equipment providers may also take the position that customising their equipment and services for the unique requirements of small NTN RAN networks is an endeavour more suited to the smaller vendors, who view satellites as a more investable proposition.
LEO Network Operators will favour the regenerative payload architecture for satellite connectivity
3GPP has defined two architectures for the development of 5G NTNs in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) and how they connect to infrastructure on the ground – known today as the ‘transparent’ and the ‘regenerative’ architectures.
The transparent architecture is composed of connectivity via a satellite acting as a repeater with the gNB on the ground. This still meets link-budget requirements, but since each satellite is only repeating the signal, they have greater feeder-link demands to operate multiple beams. Furthermore, the transparent architecture requires each LEO satellite to have visibility of a ground station.
The regenerative model, on the other hand, is based on OpenRAN architecture which sees the RAN processing split across the radio unit (RU), distributed unit (DU) and centralised unit (CU). This modular architecture can enable the RU, DU and potentially other RAN components to be more easily located on satellite infrastructure. The signal is therefore processed directly from the satellite, offering much lower latency, lower feeder link bandwidth and requiring fewer gateways, especially if inter-satellite links are present.
The regenerative architecture also allows multiple satellites in LEO to connect to a single network gateway on Earth, and communicate with one another through inter-satellite links. This will enable 5G NTN providers to densify their satellite networks and operate them more flexibly and with higher performance. As a result, it is likely that most 5G NTN providers operating in LEO will start to favour a regenerative architecture as the ecosystem matures.
However, many of the larger infrastructure vendors do not ‘open’ their equipment in this way and so may be reluctant to participate in 5G satellite deployments that require significant degrees of customisation. This will therefore open the door for the smaller vendors to potentially take a huge role in the market over the next decade.
Launching ubiquitous 5G connectivity
Despite the challenge the NEMs face in this market, they are still keen to test the water. Ericsson, for example, says it is working with Thales and Qualcomm on 5G NTNs. Like many companies in this new and exciting space, the major vendors are flying in uncharted territory and will be looking for expert partners to help them understand the opportunity in this market, and understand the competitive and economic benefits. They will no doubt play a role in these networks, but exactly how big a role they will play, is unclear.
The alternative vendors that support OpenRAN architecture are likely to have a bigger role. They are looking for new sources of revenue and offer an open and interoperable architecture that is well suited to provide an adjunct to terrestrial networks. These companies will need to find partners with domain experience of both the terrestrial and satellite communications to build the 5G NTN roadmaps, ensure they can move successfully to build relationships, and monetise their investments.
Peter has been working in the cellular communication industry for over 15 years, specialising in modem system architecture, and physical layer development. Before joining TTP, Peter worked in the development of 2G/3G/4G cellular modem products and small-cell base station projects for a number of leading cellular equipment vendors. At TTP, Peter works with a wide range of clients in the satellite and cellular communication domains, specialising in the end-to-end system engineering and modem system development, as well as advising on commercial aspects. Currently Peter’s primary focus is advising TTP’s clients on the technical aspects of 5G NTN (Non-Terrestrial Networks).