A startup is ready to launch the first dedicated 5G IoT satellites this year.
Release 17 of the 3rd Generation Partnership Project’s (3GPP’s) 5G specification has been completed. Companies are starting to use the non-terrestrial networking (NTN) update to that spec to build the first 5G IoT satellites.
Barcelona, Spain–based startup Sateliot plans to be the first satellite operator to put up a 5G IoT constellation. Elon Musk’s SpaceX operation is launching the first Sateliot nanosatellite in February. Sateliot hopes to put another four up in space by the end of this year. The young company expects to have a swarm of 250 units up by the end of 2025.
Sateliot CEO Jaume Sanpera told EE Times that the startup has been working for four years on its IoT nanosatellites. Sateliot has been collaborating with the 3GPP on the NTN 5G specification. “We made more than 17 contributions,” Sanpera said.
The company’s low-Earth-orbit (LEO) satellite will use 5G narrowband IoT (NB-IoT) to connect its satellites to IoT devices on the ground. Originally a 4G standard, the NB-IoT specification was recognized by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) as part of its IMT-2020 5G standard in July 2020.
The connection between satellites in space and IoT devices on the ground will depend on more than just having 5G-capable satellites in orbit. Chipmakers must also release silicon that will support the latest 5G specification.
“By mid-year, most of the large manufacturers will have Release 17 implemented on their chipsets,” Sanpera said. This means that satellite-compliant 5G IoT devices could be on the commercial market by the end of 2023 and will become more commonplace in 2024.
Sateliot is talking to mobile network operators (MNOs) worldwide about running its service. The startup has already signed on with major MNO Telefónica, which runs services in 15 countries around the globe. “We are talking to 54 other mobile operators,” Sanpera said.
Dean Bubley, founder of Disruptive Analysis, noted that satellite IoT, largely based on 4G LTE technology, already serves remote oil and gas infrastructure monitoring systems, agricultural sensors and shipping containers, and it tracks high-end assets like construction equipment.
“I think 5G and satellite will be more about backhaul and fronthaul, or direct-to-device for phones and maybe vehicles,” Bubley said. He added, however, the possibility of running a 5G NB-IoT connection from a LEO satellite to devices on the ground.
This is exactly what Sateliot is doing. Sanpera notes that there are four or five other startups that are working to deliver similar 5G satellite systems. The CEO did not name these startups.
Sanpera expects to start offering satellite services that allow IoT devices to send out one message a day. The CEO said that he sees one-third of his customers that need that kind of service, another third that want their IoT devices to send a message an hour and a final third that require near-real–time communication.
Sateliot will move from a constellation that can handle devices sending one message a day in early 2023, ramp up to hourly transmissions in 2024 and ultimately move to near-real–time communication in 2025.
The second-generation shuffle
The Sateliot nano units are already set to launch on SpaceX first-generation satellites this year. The Spanish startup will avoid any issues with launch schedules. “Our plan is already booked,” Sanpera said.
The Sateliot launch won’t be affected by the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC’s) limited approval of 7,500 SpaceX second-generation satellites, which will begin launching this year. SpaceX had originally requested permission to form a new satellite constellation of nearly 30,000 second-generation satellites.
The new SpaceX satellites are “too large for the current rockets,” explained Sanpera. He said the heavy-lift Starship will be needed to deploy the next-generation SpaceX satellites. SpaceX is expected to test its Starship prototype in space this December.