The 5G non-terrestrial-network (NTN) market is fast approaching a significant milestone as more Mobile Network Operators (MNOs) are looking towards satellites to extend their coverage.
Growing number of telco and satellite operator partnerships
Data published on Thursday by the Global Mobile Suppliers Association (GSA) reveals a total of 49 publicly announced partnerships between telcos and satellite operators spanning across 34 countries.
SES and OneWeb emerge as the top satellite providers, with nine and eight partnerships respectively, followed closely by AST Spacemobile with seven. Geographically, the United States holds the highest concentration of partnerships at 11, followed by the UK and China with four each.
According to the GSA, telco-satellite operator partnerships tend to focus on one of five categories of use: rural and enterprise broadband; IoT/M2M; satellite-to-cellphone; emergency comms; and backhaul.
Major Area of Use
Rural and enterprise broadband emerges as the single biggest driver of 5G NTN momentum. 32 operators across 27 countries have partnered with a satellite provider specifically for this purpose. Of these, 24 are in the planning stage, while five are in the evaluation, testing, and trialing phase. Three have already launched their services – one each in Japan, the UAE, and Papua New Guinea.
Another popular category is the direct satellite-to-cellphone, or Direct-to-Device (D2D) communication. 13 operators are planning to launch such services, and three are currently evaluating, testing, or trialing.
The GSA observed that satellite-based M2M and IoT services are developing at a slower pace, with only six in the planning stage, and a single commercial deployment. This could be due to the broad availability of cheaper alternative connectivity options, like NB-IoT and LoRaWAN, for instance.
The role of satellites in the world of cellular communication
“The role of satellites is rapidly gaining prominence in the world of cellular communication as mobile operators look for complementary solutions to support the business case for 5G in challenging terrain and specific use cases,” GSA president Joe Barrett said in a statement. “As the technology evolves and more industry partnerships are established, the potential for satellite networks to supplement and enhance terrestrial 5G networks will become increasingly clear.”
While the high cost of satellite services and devices relative to terrestrial equivalents is still a barrier to uptake, Barrett emphasized that the satellite industry is nevertheless “taking its first step towards long-term growth, and it is a market the GSA will continue to track.”
In light of the above, the 5G NTN market appears to be on the brink of a significant breakthrough. As the GSA data indicates, a growing number of partnerships between telcos and satellite operators, coupled with interest in services like direct satellite-to-cellphone connections, suggest this is a sector with vast potential that warrants further observation.
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