Satellite communications is back in the limelight following the launch of Apple’s direct Satellite-to-Phone service earlier this year. Partnering with satellite operator Globalstar, the service provides SOS messaging for iPhone 14/15 users. Recently, the service was expanded to include roadside assistance via satellite as well. A host of similar services and partnerships have been announced between satellite operators and chip vendors/cellular operators during the past few months, including Inmarsat with Mediatek, Iridium with Qualcomm and most recently SpaceX with KDDI.
In addition to the incumbent operators, there are a number of new players such as AST SpaceMobile and Lynk Global. AST SpaceMobile has partnered with Rakuten Mobile and currently has one operational satellite in-orbit. It has been granted preliminary experimental licenses in Japan and in the US. Meanwhile Lynk launched a limited commercial “store-and-forward” service using three satellites in April. Both companies plan to launch full constellations over the next few years.
The Mobile Satellite Services (MSS) market has historically been a niche market due primarily to the fact that MSS is based on proprietary technologies. However, 3GPP is working with the satellite industry on a global standardized solution, called 5G Non-Terrestrial Networks (NTN). 5G NTN will enable seamless roaming between terrestrial and satellite networks, using largely standard cellular devices, i.e., eliminating the need for proprietary terminals and fragmented satellite constellations. This could dramatically increase the addressable market for mobile satellite services.
5G Non-Terrestrial Networks (NTN)
With the emergence of new Satellite-to-Phone services, there is now a widespread industry push to deploy NTN-based satellite networks as this would benefit the satellite industry and the wider mobile industry. However, 3GPP has been working on NTN for some time. For example, there has been an ongoing study on 5G NTN since 3GPP Release 15, while in 2022, 3GPP introduced two parallel workstreams in its Release 17 specifications addressing 5G satellite-based mobile broadband and low-complexity IoT use cases:
- NR-NTN (New Radio NTN) – adapts the 5G NR framework for satellite communications, providing direct mobile broadband services as well as voice using standard apps. This will enable 5G phones operating on dedicated 5G NTN frequencies and existing sub-7GHz terrestrial frequencies to link directly with Release-17 compatible satellites. Release 17 also includes enhancements for satellite backhaul and the inclusion of 80MHz MSS uplink spectrum in L-band (1-2GHz) plus a similar amount of downlink spectrum in S-band (2-4GHz).
- IoT-NTN – provides satellite support for low-complexity eMTC and NB-IoT devices, which expands the coverage for key use cases such as worldwide asset tracking (for example, air freight, shipping containers and other assets outside cellular coverage). IoT-NTN is designed for low data rate applications such as the transmission of sensor data and text messages.
Release 17 established the NR-NTN and IoT-NTN standards while the upcoming 5G Advanced Release 18 will introduce new capabilities, coverage/mobility enhancements and support for expanded spectrum bands. For example, there are plans to extend the NR-NTN frequency range beyond 10GHz by adding Fixed Satellite Services (FSS) spectrum in the 17.7-20.2GHz band for downlink and 27.5-30.0GHz for uplink.
Traditional mobile satellite operators such as Inmarsat, Iridium and Globalstar have been offering M2M/IoT type services for many years targeting various industry verticals, ranging from agriculture, construction and oil and gas to maritime, transportation and utilities. Some of the traditional FSS players, such as AsiaSat, Eutelsat and Intelsat, also offer M2M/IoT services over Ku or Ka bands.
Another player with a long history in satellite communications is San Diego-based chip vendor Qualcomm. The company was a founding partner and key technology provider in Globalstar and also developed satellite-based asset tracking service OmniTRACS. Qualcomm is still heavily involved in the satcom business and earlier this year announced Snapdragon Satellite, its Satellite-to-Phone service. More recently, it announced the availability of two Release 17 compatible GEO/GSO IoT-NTN satellite modems launched in collaboration with US-based Skylo, a NTN connectivity service provider, that enables cellular devices to connect to existing, proprietary satellite networks:
- Qualcomm 212S Modem – a satellite-only IoT modem designed to enable stationary sensing and monitoring IoT devices to communicate with NTN-based satellites. The chipset is an ultra-low power device and can be powered from solar panels or supercapacitors.
- Qualcomm 9205S Modem – enables IoT devices to connect to both terrestrial cellular and satellite networks and has integrated GNSS to provide location data. Typical applications include industrial applications requiring always-on, hybrid terrestrial and satellite connectivity for tracking assets such as agricultural machinery, shipping containers, livestock, etc.
Both devices are designed for low-power, cost optimized applications and support the Qualcomm Aware cloud platform, which provides real-time asset tracking and device management in off-grid, remote areas for IoT.
Most of the major chip vendors, such as MediaTek, Qualcomm and Sony Semiconductors, have already developed Release 17 compatible chipsets. This means that satellite-compliant 5G IoT devices could be available commercially by the end of 2023 and should become commonplace in 2024.
NTN Satellite Operators
Only a few NTN-based satellites have been launched to date. A noteworthy example is Spanish LEO operator Sateliot, the first company to deploy satellites complying with 3GPP’s Release 17 IoT-NTN standard. Sateliot currently has two satellites in orbit and recently carried out a successful roaming test between its satellite network and Telefonica’s 5G terrestrial network using an IoT device with a standard SIM card. Sateliot plans to start commercial activities in 2024. Ultimately, the company hopes to launch a total of 250 nanosatellites, which will enable it to offer global 5G IoT-NTN services.
No satellite operator presently supports 3GPP’s Release 17 NR-NTN standard for voice and data. Although AST SpaceMobile and Lynk Global have demonstrated two-way satellite-to-5G terrestrial communications, neither uses the NR-NTN standard, although they have plans to test the NR-NTN standard.
Satellite Déjà Vu?
Over two decades ago, the mobile satellite industry invested billions to launch a number of ground-breaking LEO-based voice and narrowband data constellations. Only a handful survived and even fewer have prospered. Will history repeat itself?
Although there are some parallels, Counterpoint Research believes that there are also some important differences this time. During the past 20 years, satellites have become much smaller, more capable and less expensive. Some of these satellites are based on CubeSat technology, which uses commercial, off-the-shelf (COTS) components, thus drastically reducing costs while accelerating time to market. This is particularly relevant to nanosatellites, many of whom are being developed to target the IoT-NTN market. Another important difference is that launch costs have decreased significantly due to the entry of new private launch companies, notably SpaceX.
Perhaps the most important differentiator between current and next-generation satellites, however, is that the latter will be based on 3GPP’s NTN standards. Historically, proprietary satellite systems have resulted in a limited range of low volume and hence expensive end user devices – a significant barrier to growth. As with 5G (and 4G before it), a common set of cellular-based standards will enable the mobile satellite industry – plus the vertical markets it serves – to benefit from the vast economies of scale of the cellular device ecosystem. This should result in higher volume chipset production, more affordable devices and services and hence a much larger market of end users. For instance, Sateliot estimates that the cost of satellite IoT connectivity will drop from hundreds of dollars per device per month to less than $10 per device per month.
Furthermore, the adoption of 5G NTN and its integration with terrestrial 5G will result in a truly seamless global telecoms network, with increased space segment capacity, resulting in more users benefiting from higher data rate services. This will lead to more applications and use cases thus creating more value-add for vertical market users. Clearly, this could lead to a significant expansion of the mobile satellite services market globally.