Industry Insights

5G Paves the Way for Non-Terrestrial Networks

2020-04-30  |  4 min read 

5G marks the first time that cellular network technology will be out of this world, so to speak.

That's because, unlike any of the previous generations of wireless communications technology, the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) is planning to make 5G into a network that incorporates satellites and other so-called "high-altitude platforms" to augment terrestrial 5G networks.

In a nutshell, adding satellite links to 5G will enable communication independent of earth-based or terrestrial communications infrastructure. The addition of non-terrestrial networks (NTNs) will enhance 5G technology in several ways.

First, NTNs will boost the reach of 5G to remote corners of the earth that have no existing terrestrial infrastructure. Using satellites or other high-altitude platforms such as balloons, airships, or pilotless aircraft can enable mobile network operators (MNOs) to deliver 5G service to areas without infrastructure in place or where that infrastructure becomes unavailable, such as a following a natural disaster.

NTNs can also provide redundancy to amplify service continuity for machine-to-machine (M2M) and IoT devices and bolster the reliability of mission-critical communications.

NTNs also extend the availability of 5G service to more moving platforms. For example, satellite communications can deliver 5G service to moving aircraft, ships, and trains in remote areas where it is not reasonable or possible to build terrestrial network infrastructure.

5G NTNs can also help MNOs fill gaps in existing terrestrial networks. M2M and IoT applications located at the edge of coverage areas or in difficult-to-reach locations can access 5G through satellite broadband links.
Some of the most anticipated use cases for NTNs include:

  • Multi-connectivity to allow user equipment to attach to both terrestrial and satellite links simultaneously. 
  • Fixed cell connectivity to enable users in remote areas or industry premises such as offshore oil platforms to access 5G services. 
  • Mobile cell connectivity to enable aircraft and high-speed rail passengers to have seamless 5G mobile cell coverage, utilizing terrestrial networks where available and using satellite links in remote areas where terrestrial cell networks are not available.  
  • Deploying or restoring network coverage to areas that have impacted by natural disasters. 
  • The wide-area IoT use case, in which satellite links augment terrestrial networks to enable IoT services over a wide area for relatively high-latency applications such as energy networks, transportation, and agriculture. 
  • Direct to node broadcast or direct to mobile broadcast for delivering TV or multimedia service or broadcasting emergency service messages and use cases for wide-area IoT and public service uses. 

Most of the enhancements to the 5G New Radio standard that will enable 5G NTNs are expected to be included in 3GPP's Release 17. This release is expected to be completed in 2021.   

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