NSR Bottom Line: 5G, transforming the satellite industry from the ground

5G has generated tremendous expectations from a customer-oriented capabilities point of view (ultra-fast speeds, latency, etc.), but one must not forget that 5G also represents a completely different way to conceive telecom infrastructure. In fact, the biggest short-term impact, at least for satcom, will be felt on the backend of networks. Standardized seamless integration with terrestrial, adoption of SDN/NFV technologies, cloudification, network slicing, etc, are all concepts that will transform the satellite industry leveraging 5G. Ground segment is at the epicenter of this transition, and VSAT platforms have the critical role to enable the presence of satellite in the 5G ecosystem.

The opportunities generated by 5G go well beyond the backhaul over Satellite segment. Not only will it unlock new use cases like mobility, hybrid networks or IoT, but 5G will also accelerate adoption of new networking technologies (SDN/NFV). This virtualized ecosystem will profoundly transform satcom’s value chain. While VSAT platforms carry most of the R&D burden to make satcom compatible with 3GPP standards (the body defining 5G), the good news is this effort will pay off as, according to NSR’s Commercial Satellite Ground Segment, 4th Edition report, VSAT platforms will experience double-digit growth over the next decade.

Positioning Satcom’s Niche in the 5G Ecosystem

There is a lot of hype around 5G performance targets, with some questioning the viability of satcom. Ultralow latency is usually referenced to challenge the role of satellite in 5G, but the reality is that this requirement has little to do with backhaul as the majority of ultralow latency requirements will be solved at the edge without need to backhauling to the core, making satellite a viable option. Similarly, the 20 Gbps per connection peak traffic target could disqualify satellite, but this performance required is defined for dense locations. In fact, the target for wide area coverage zones is 100 Mbps, well within the possibilities of satellite today. 5G aims at serving myriad applications, each with different performance requirements. Satcom should focus on those use cases where it can add value.

All in all, NSR expects 5G opportunities to be generated from 4 main pillars:

  • Backhaul. Connecting base stations from remote areas. Apart from today’s use cases, an easier integration could propel new types of architectures like resiliency, emergency response, quick deployment for special events, IoT or traffic offload.

  • Trunking. Networks will need to reach further into remote areas, and satellite is the optimal solution in those cases. Again, resiliency and restoration generate growing levels of demand.

  • Mobility. While 5G puts a lot of focus on connecting vehicles (cars, trains), there will be many instances where this would need to be complemented by satellite. Satellite ubiquity can’t be matched by terrestrial networks. Those connected mobile platforms will benefit from a unified approach to connectivity.

  • Hybrid Networks. Arguably the newest application accelerated by 5G is the opportunity for satellite to play a bigger role in IP Content Distribution. With capabilities moving to the edge, the explosion of OTT services and the transition to higher quality video, satellite will see the opportunity to multicast content to edge servers.

Seamlessly Integrating with Terrestrial Networks

Beyond the extravagant consumer-oriented applications proposed, 5G also represents a completely new way to architect telecom networks. It aims to be a “network of networks”, where all access technologies, be it fiber, microwave, satellite or any other technology, can seamlessly work together. Here is where satellite ground segment needs to focus in the short term to make sure that satcom will be 5G-compatible.

Satellite interoperability with terrestrial networks is nothing new. Mobile Backhaul or SD-WAN networks are some straightforward examples. However, these deployments require significant additional efforts to make terrestrial protocols work over satellite (3G is particularly challenging over satellite). The novelty of 5G is that it standardizes service orchestration. An operator and a service provider sharing 5G protocols could configure and manage multiple types of services using standardized procedures. This has the potential to make satellite easily integrable for any connectivity provider.

Leveraging 5G to Accelerate Technology Development

Software defined satellites, VHTS or NGSOs are some of the extraordinary innovations making satcom more competitive. Ground segment needs to adapt to these new architectures and respond to new requirements such as the new scale of HTS, resource optimization in a flexible environment, or constantly changing network conditions.

5G also does an extensive job standardizing new concepts such as Software Defined Networks (SDN) and Network Function Virtualization (NFV). Adopting 3GPP standards, satcom could directly integrate technologies developed in the 5G framework to minimize time to market.

New Roles in a Virtual Environment

Virtualization is a major topic in 5G. It is a critical element in making networks more flexible, scalable and efficient. But it will also transform the entire value chain with new roles, functions and ways to coordinate the different layers in the network. Satcom ground segment is at the core of this transition and needs to provide a clear technology roadmap for all the steps of the value chain to work coordinately. With standardized service orchestration and adoption of NFV/SDN, network operators and service providers can quickly and flexibly tailor their network services.

This new concept of service delivery has the potential to transform how network capabilities are procured. The legacy capacity leases model will evolve towards a model based on virtualized infrastructure (software-defined satellites and distributed ground segment).

Bottom Line

5G is an extraordinary opportunity for satellite. Not only will 5G boost demand for backhaul services, but it will also accelerate the adoption of new use cases like mobility, hybrid networks or IoT.

Satellite has historically been difficult to adopt for non-specialized actors. 5G standardized service orchestration will make satellite easily understood and integrable for any connectivity service provider.

Ground segment is a key enabler for the next wave of innovations in the satellite industry (software defined satellites, VHTS, NGSOs). 5G standards provide the framework to accelerate technology development in this evolution. Choosing the right ground segment partners is crucial in these transformative times as the impact of the networking tools will resonate across the value chain.

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