In the Spotlight

Standardization of 5G from space

In the Spotlight

Standardization of 5G from space

Available in

    The Mobile World Congress will see the major players in connectivity from around the globe descend on Barcelona, February 26–29, 2024. A great opportunity to showcase Thales Alenia Space’s work to standardize 5G from space and spotlight this technology, which is fast becoming a reality.

    5G technology : a new digital revolution

    The fifth generation of cellular network standards, better known as 5G, uses new frequency bands to significantly boost the performance of 4G communications, paving the way for a new digital revolution. With 5G, we’re entering the realm of ultra-fast broadband, with data rates 10 or even 100 times faster than 4G. Bringing enhanced reliability and near-instantaneous transmission, 5G will further expand global connectivity, supporting a dense network of simultaneously connected devices.

    5G opens the door to innumerable possibilities, fostering the very large-scale development of the Internet of Things (IoT). Companies in B2B markets will be the primary beneficiaries of 5G’s capabilities. It lays the foundations for the digital transformation of industry. We’re already moving toward the replacement of conventional industrial technologies, based on dedicated, closed and costly systems, by IoT. This means remotely controlled connected machines, supervised in real time with data uplinks and downlinks, all wireless of course. 5G will inevitably take its place as the central nervous system of tomorrow’s factories.

    Satellite 5G : a new way to bridge the digital divide

    5G was first introduced in 2019 and has since been adopted by leading economies around the world. More powerful than fourth generation (4G), 5G via terrestrial networks is limited however by the need to install masts. So, if no such masts are installed, entire geographic regions can be left with no connectivity solution. By combining 5G technology with telecom satellites, this problem is solved: cellular connectivity is widely extended, allowing access to the 5G network anywhere on Earth, complementing the coverage provided by existing terrestrial networks. Not-spots, where no terrestrial infrastructure is in place, will benefit from an efficient cellular network with no restrictions. Remote areas, mountains, forests and open ocean can all be served by space-based 5G. Here, satellites won’t offer the same level of performance as a terrestrial network, but they’ll guarantee a basic mobile communications service.

    More broadly, satellite can serve as a backup solution in the event of an outage or natural disaster affecting terrestrial infrastructure, thereby ensuring operational continuity. 5G from space could also have military and government applications, guaranteeing continuity and integrity of communications.

    Satellites also support a dense network of simultaneously connected devices, like cargo planes with sensors making transoceanic flights, or cars fitted with modems. In short, satellites are an ideal resource to meet the huge challenges inherent in the IoT revolution. In a world of ever growing demand for telecommunications, 5G via satellite is emerging as a new accessible, reliable, key enabling solution, delivering everywhere, always-on connectivity.

    5G from space

    © Thales Alenia Space

    Standardization led by Thales Alenia Space

    Thales Alenia Space was the first to initiate the concept of satellite 5G and foster efforts to standardize 5G NTN (non-terrestrial networks). The endeavor has gained the support of all players in the 5G ecosystem, including the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP), the world telecommunication standards body. The work by our company’s teams has led to the approval of a global standard for satellite-driven 5G non-terrestrial networks, as well as a consensus on all forms of services. As a technology now supported by 3GPP, non-terrestrial 5G networks can capitalize on a broad ecosystem of standardized products and components.

    Thales Alenia Space has played a crucial role in the standardization of non-terrestrial 5G and has helped implement it as a solution. We’ve led feasibility studies supported by the French Space Agency (CNES) and European Space Agency (ESA) to establish its technical viability. Efforts to further raise the project’s maturity is supported by funding: in our role as industrial partner and infrastructure provider we benefit from financial support from the French government under its 2030 investment plan.

    New infrastructure and technologies

    Delivering 5G connectivity from space will require a constellation of satellites in LEO (low-Earth orbit) at 600 to 800 kilometers altitude (370 to 500 mi). These satellites will have large antenna arrays to guarantee high transmission quality. Only a few dozen ground-based masts will be needed for global 5G coverage. They’ll ensure an optimal link between cellular handsets and satellites to ensure the most seamless service. The satellite operator will be able to pool non-terrestrial 5G coverage extension services with telecom operators in each country covered by the constellation.

    Initial ground tests have been completed, with promising results. First live in-orbit tests are planned for 2025. Several satellites will be tested to verify the viability of connections. This 5G connectivity constellation is designed to be a long-term sustainable part of the satellite market, with adaptation solutions to allow future technology insertion and upgrades. The resulting flexibility will enable the progressive integration of innovations linked to future-generation connectivity, such as 6G.

    Thales at the heart of the 5G ecosystem

    Thales is actively involved in the 5G ecosystem, notably through Thales SIX GTS, which is working on the use of 5G technology for military applications. Thales Digital Identity & Security (DIS) is providing mobile operators with support for network security, an issue of major concern, and device enrolment on the 5G network.

    Thales is now a key player in terrestrial and satellite 5G.

    Right now, Thales Alenia Space is talking with satellite operators with the capacity to roll out the satellite 5G system. The first direct 5G connection between a standard unmodified smartphone and a satellite is eagerly awaited, with a network expected to be live by late 2027. These technologies already exist and will be built into all next generations of handsets to bring the market up to speed with 5G via satellite.