Global technology majors including Swedish telecoms equipment maker Ericsson, French aerospace company Thales and US chip giant Qualcomm have announced plans to build a space-based 5G network, in which smartphones will be able to directly communicate with satellites.
According to the companies, the objective is to “improve global connectivity and provide better internet services worldwide”. In fact, the three firms are looking to launch hundreds of satellites with 5G capabilities to bring coverage to “extreme geographies or remote areas across seas".
The plan would potentially cut out the base stations and antennas that current mobile networks need to send and receive data, the companies said in an official statement.
Calling it “a major milestone in the history of communications”, Erik Ekudden, Senior Vice President and Chief Technology Officer, Ericsson, said, “This would effectively mean that no matter where you are on Earth – in the middle of an ocean or the remotest forest – high-end, secure and cost-effective connectivity will be available through collaborative 5G satellite and terrestrial connectivity.”
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The project could pave the way for global wireless coverage from space at a time when governments have become increasingly concerned about ensuring the autonomy and resilience of their telecom infrastructure.
John Smee, senior vice president of engineering, Qualcomm Technologies said that for 5G to fulfil on the promise of ubiquitous connectivity, it is imperative that it can also deliver network coverage in areas where terrestrial cellular networks do not exist, whether that be over oceans or in remote areas.
A space-based network could also be used to back up terrestrial networks in the event of major outages or disasters, and offer connections in places not covered by traditional service providers.
Initial tests will take place in an emulated space environment in France, where the majority of European space-focused industry is based.
According to Ericsson, testing would continue well into 2023 as it needs to be seen whether it's feasible to build a network of satellites that can connect with phones.
The idea is in itself, however, in its early stages and the tech majors are not expecting an imminent rollout, as Ekudden said, “It was 'too early to say' when the first satellites might be put into use.” Thales, however, said a rollout of 600 to 800 satellites could begin within 4-5 years.