Why you should care
Terrestrial 5G may never reach rural areas, but satellites are coming to the rescue.
Imagine yourself in the backseat of a self-driving car, on a road trip through the backcountry. Satellites may be the last things on your mind, but your future life might depend on them, and their capacity to offer fast internet regardless of location. You wouldn’t want your self-driving car to have slow internet when driving next to a cliff, for example.
Fifth-generation mobile internet will not only allow us to watch YouTube videos faster, but it’ll also be vital for technologies like self-driving cars and the internet of things. Yet it’s doubtful that rural areas will get access to 5G anytime soon. Telecommunication operators are reluctant to bear the high cost and low profitability of 5G in remote areas, many of which in the U.S. lack even broadband.
Satellite has a big role to play in 5G.
Lluc Palerm-Serra, senior analyst, Northern Sky Research
That’s where satellites come in. Large institutions such as the European Space Agency (ESA) and the European Union, and companies like SpaceX and OneWeb are investing in satellite internet and satellite 5G, hoping to bypass expensive terrestrial networks. The EU is funding SaT5G, a consortium of companies and research institutes, to deliver prototypes of satellites integrated with fifth-generation networks by 2019. The ESA has brought together 16 major European defense and telecom firms on a “Satellite for 5G” project. OneWeb, a U.S.-based startup, linked up earlier this year with Airbus to develop satellite 5G for in-flight mobile internet. It has received more than $1 billion from Japan’s SoftBank to build its own satellite internet constellation. And SpaceX raised $500 million in investments in April — from Fidelity Investments, among others — in part to develop its Starlink satellite internet.
“We believe satellite has a big role to play in 5G,” says Lluc Palerm-Serra, a senior analyst at Northern Sky Research, a space industry research and consulting agency. “Satellite is being increasingly used for 4G networks, so we expect that to be extended into 5G.”
Fifth generation, or 5G, is a collective term for a range of technologies that will enable considerably faster — up to 20 times faster — mobile internet than at present. But for more data to be transmitted more quickly, new infrastructure, with a higher density of cell towers, will be needed. Still in the testing phase, 5G will most likely become available around 2020.
Although satellites will be a piece of the puzzle in implementing 5G, they won’t be able to replace terrestrial internet networks. In many cases, launching satellites and maintaining them would result in costs higher than building terrestrial fifth-generation infrastructure.
But the more remote the area, the less efficient terrestrial infrastructure becomes, and the satellite option grows more attractive. “The initial way in which 5G is going to be developed is through very small, dense cells in urban areas,” says Barry Evans, a research fellow at the University of Surrey who is involved with the EU-funded SaT5G project. “That’s where the business will be.”
That, says Evans, will leave large chunks in developed nations that won’t be connected with 5G. Palerm-Serra agrees. “You’re not going to connect Times Square by satellite,” he says. In semi-urban areas, though, satellites might make sense.
That doesn’t mean we’ll all be using satellite internet in the future. “Satellite internet will remain a niche for now,” Palerm-Serra says. Still, even a jump from, say, 1 percent of the market share to 3 percent would represent a significant leap forward for the space industry.
There are also other options to reach remote regions. Loon, a subsidiary of Google, uses high-altitude balloons to provide fourth-generation mobile internet to remote areas. The company serviced Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria and is currently deploying its systems in Kenya.
Over larger geographies, though, satellites have greater reach. And in some areas, fast satellite internet could be a game-changer. In 2016, for example, the Federal Communications Commission noted that more than 15 million rural Americans, including those living on tribal lands, still lacked mobile broadband at guaranteed speeds of a minimum of 3Mbps.
One rural area already benefiting from 5G is Groningen, in the Netherlands. It’s serving as a testing ground for terrestrial high-speed internet, with support from the Dutch government, the EU, and telecom operators like Ericsson and Huawei. The trials in Groningen include “smart potatoes,” a project that uses sensors to improve agriculture. Researchers are testing self-driving buses and using 5G to transmit high-quality video from ambulances so that experts can remotely assist with medical procedures. “We even have a student who runs a startup that uses high-quality drone footage to improve farming,” says Marc Cremers of 5Groningen, the organization coordinating the 5G efforts in the province. “5G helps with uploading high-quality images.”
The ultimate goal of 5Groningen is more down to earth than smart potatoes and self-driving cars. “Fundamentally we want to keep jobs in Groningen,” says Cremers. Youth often leave the region after graduating, he says: “By showing there’s also innovation here, maybe we can keep them here.” While the Groningen experiment shows what fifth-generation networks can do for small towns, it will likely take satellite-beamed networks for high-speed internet to reach such communities more broadly.
Before fifth-generation satellites start popping up, though, there’s more technical stuff that needs a decision, such as what frequencies to use. “5G is still not defined,” says Palerm-Serra.
Whatever the definition, satellites will be critical to the implementation of 5G services, and not just for rural communities. Remember the cliff you might encounter in a self-driving car outside the city?