Mobile communication is ushering in a new era with the freezing of Release 18 and initiating discussions on 6G in Release 19. However, the 5G market has yet to find a breakthrough business opportunity, emphasizing the importance of exploring demand applications while planning for technological evolution.
3GPP NTN fills the final gap in the network.
"Ubiquitous Connectivity" is the ongoing goal of 3GPP. To achieve this, 3GPP has introduced NR NTN and IoT NTN satellite communication standards since Release 17, incorporating space into the mobile network. While Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellite services led by SpaceX and OneWeb have already been commercialized, emerging satellite operators are actively launching their satellites, collaborating with telecom operators, chip manufacturers, and equipment vendors for testing. Related services are expected to continue commercializing in the coming years.
Proprietary Protocols to Standards, Transparent/Regenerative Architecture
According to Ericsson's technical article, satellite communication has currently taken three development paths:
- 1. Traditional Mobile Satellite Services (MSS), applying traditional MSS technology to smartphones, such as Apple and Globalstar collaborating on providing emergency services for the iPhone 14.
- 2. Traditional LTE technology using ground LTE spectrum to provide satellite communication services to unmodified LTE phones through network-side modifications.
- 3. 5G NTN, developing in parallel based on the 3GPP R17 standard.
Nokia's Technical Director, Chen Mingbang, explains that mobile communication NTN networks can be broadly categorized into "Transparent Payload" and "Regenerative Payload" architectures. The former is a structure specified by 3GPP R17, where satellites mainly serve as relay stations, while the latter, expected to be introduced in R18, integrates some base station functions into satellites. Chen Mingbang notes that satellite operators are already adopting the Transparent architecture to achieve satellite communication without additional modifications to terminal devices. However, current implementations use proprietary protocols to address latency issues. For example, Nokia and AST SpaceMobile are working together to eliminate communication delays, with Nokia providing base station-related equipment and software and AST providing the BlueWalker 3 satellite. This proprietary protocol-based Transparent architecture can be seen as a Pre-R17 NTN, with the potential for satellite operators to transition to the R17 standard in the future. SpaceX also plans to expand its services to SMS, voice/data transmission, and LTE IoT connectivity in the next two years.
In addition to architectural evolution, 3GPP will continue to enhance NTN network performance in subsequent versions. Shahbaz Ali, Product Director at Sateliot, mentions that their developed Store & Forward technology has been proposed as part of future 3GPP versions to assist NTN development further. Store & Forward allows satellites to store data from User Equipment (UE) and transmit it when connected to ground stations. This technology does not require Service Link and Feeder Link to be in parallel, allowing data transmission to wait until the ground station enters the satellite coverage area, providing support for service providers in the early stages of satellite deployment.
Shahbaz Ali, Sateliot's Head of Product
Opportunities in the Mobile/ IoT Market
Low Earth Orbit satellites have sparked enthusiastic discussions in the general consumer market. Companies like Apple and Huawei are integrating satellite communication capabilities into their smartphones. The application of Low Earth Orbit satellites in the Internet of Things (IoT) is also gaining attention, with semiconductor companies like MediaTek and Qualcomm introducing standard-compliant chip solutions.
3GPP NTN technology brings satellite communication into the consumer market. MediaTek states that 3GPP NTN is based on open standards for direct satellite communication technology with mobile phones, ensuring interoperability between different phone brands and satellites and thereby expanding the economic scale. Direct satellite communication with mobile phones gained attention in 2023. Early that year, MediaTek collaborated with the British company Bullitt to launch Motorola Defy and Cat S75 commercial smartphones using 3GPP NTN technology.
MediaTek mentions that the most significant value of satellite communication for consumers is "Always Connected."
Emergency rescue services are the first popular application of direct satellite communication with mobile phones. TN+NTN allows global signal coverage, making its service nature more like purchasing insurance rather than internet services. In addition to basic communication functions such as text messaging and Voice over New Radio (VoNR), 5G NR NTN can also be used for Fixed Wireless Access (FWA) and connected car applications and can enhance its performance through specialized devices like Very Small Aperture Terminals (VSAT).
5G IoT NTN
Market research firm IoT Analytics predicted in May 2023 that the global number of active IoT endpoints would grow from 14.3 billion in 2022 to 16.7 billion, a 16% increase, and is expected to continue growing in the coming years. Shahbaz Ali points out that for applications that do not require large data transmission and have a high tolerance for latency, IoT 5G NTN is a very near reality.
Traditionally, satellite IoT services require purchasing hardware equipment and paying subscription fees, which can be costly for IoT devices with infrequent transmissions. IoT NTN technology standardized by 3GPP has the opportunity to expand the market scale through standardization, potentially reducing costs. Specific use cases include tracking maritime cargo in the logistics, agriculture, and oil and gas industries.
Pratik Das, Senior Manager in the Technical Marketing Department at Qualcomm, adds that satellites supporting broadband connections for NR NTN are still in the development stage. The benefits to end-users can be expected once satellite deployment compatible with standards is perfected. Looking at the current 3GPP standard roadmap, NTN technology will continue to strengthen in subsequent releases, foreseeing further integration of NTN into the future of mobile networks.
Finding the Right Market and Technology is Essential (Amara's Law) states that people tend to overestimate the short-term benefits of technology while underestimating its long-term impact. After 5G's performance in the consumer market fell short of expectations and the growth of enterprise networks slowed down, the prospect of higher investment costs and unknown sources of benefits has made operators hesitant about 6G.
However, just as the surge in demand for streaming video content could not be predicted when planning the 4G standard, predictions about applications are ultimately speculative until the technology is truly implemented. 5G and 6G are still in the early stages of technological development, and communication operators continue to explore the potential business opportunities of the latest mobile communication technologies in public networks, private networks, and non-terrestrial networks. Only by finding the right market and technology can the evolution of mobile communication once again significantly change society."