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From Space to Earth: Satellite integration for 5G

5G is the fifth generation of cellular networks which will bring new opportunities for people, businesses and corporations through faster speed, higher traffic capacity, low-latency communications and enhanced positioning. The applications of this technology range across drone delivery, self-driving vehicles, cargo logistics, augmented reality, Internet of Things, remote education, telemedicine solutions, environmental monitoring and smart cities.

There is a tremendous need for digitalisation that promises to revolutionize business in the near future. 5G, currently in its early deployment phase, promises to enable this transformation and is expected that by the end of 2021 over 1 billion people will live in 5G coverage areas. For this purpose, the complementary use of satellite and ground networks is essential to provide the promised levels of coverage, ubiquity and capacity in a safe, reliable and seamless way around the world.

ESA’s role in 5G development

Satellites can have a key role in the deployment of 5G services, owing to its inherent attributes of coverage (reaching where terrestrial networks are not deployed), resilience (independence from terrestrial networks), security and capacity. The deployment of terrestrial 5G is expected to be gradual and focused on high-density population and traffic areas (large cities, campuses, highways, high-speed rail networks), while satellites can cover large areas with uniform level of service.

Key vertical market sectors require an almost complete coverage of the territory, and rely on global mobility and secure high reliable connectivity; features made possible only via satellite. Among these sectors, the most prominent are mobile communications, transport and logistics (including aeronautical, maritime and land mobile), broadband connectivity in remote and hard to reach areas, disaster relief/emergency response, back-up connectivity and network offloading, Industry 4.0, Internet of Things (IoT) and Machine-to-Machine (M2M) communications.

The COVID-19 pandemic has emphasised the importance of secure and reliable satellite connectivity solutions and services supporting societal needs and the economy globally.

At the Space19+ ESA Ministerial Conference, a 5G Strategic Programme Line (SPL) called ‘Space for 5G’ was established based on partnerships between the ESA Telecommunications and Integrated Applications Directorate and industry. The SPL 5G provides funding for activities and projects aimed at a common strategic goal to support the digitalisation of businesses and society. The SPL 5G is conducted in coordination with related 5G initiatives at European and national level in various Member States.

The SPL 5G fuels development initiatives of new satellite communication technology, products, services and applications, including new space satellite systems compliant to 5G standards. The programme also supports standardisation actions (ALIX) for open and interoperable 5G compliant satellite solutions and advocates positions favourable to satellite sector within the 3GPP standardisation process such that they result in tangible industrial opportunities.

Through the deployment of a significant number of 5G satellite enabled edge nodes in several Member States – each with its own specific focus and customisation – ESA SATis5 live testbed demonstrated that satellite networks can be considered as part of the 5G use cases deployments. SATis5 is a blueprint reference testbed implementation for 5G satellite integration.

As part of the SPL 5G Programme, ESA has also developed the 5G Hub, a research, innovation and collaboration centre, part of ESA’s European Centre for Space Applications and Telecommunications (ECSAT) located at the Harwell Campus in Oxfordshire, UK. The main purpose of the 5G Hub is to host companies from the 5G ecosystem (satellite and terrestrial network operators, equipment providers and application developers) to partner with ESA to test their technology and discover how satellite and terrestrial communication networks can converge to create innovation and support innovative applications and services.

The combination of 5G technologies is fuelling new R&D projects also in the Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) field. The GNSS Integration into 5G wireless networks or GINTO5G, an activity funded by ESA´s European GNSS Evolution Programme (EGEP) programme, is a project aimed at determining the positioning accuracy of hybrid GNSS and 5G solution tested for autonomous vehicles, drones, smart cities and the Internet of Things.

Starting in 2016, the ESA 5G GNSS Task Force within Horizon 2020 took the initiative to shape the support of high-accuracy positioning services in 4G and 5G networks. During the last years ESA became a constant presence to 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP), where it joined forces with the telecommunication community and several European GNSS companies to achieve an optimal inclusion of European GNSS into 5G worldwide standards. This work is expected to continue during the next years and is focused on adding integrity features to the already supported high-accuracy positioning enabled by GNSS.

ESA’s funding opportunities and calls

There are several funding opportunities as part of the Telecommunications 5G Strategic Programme Line:

  • 5G SPL Essential Technologies Calls address development of key advanced technology building blocks of future integrated terrestrial and satellite 5G networks
  • 5G Product and Technology Calls address the development of new satellite products and services
  • 5G application and services calls. The ESA Business Applications and Space Solutions (BASS) programme in co-ordination with the 5G SPL is currently funding several feasibility studies and projects that demonstrate the added value of 5G in providing ubiquitous 5G coverage as enabler to new applications and business models in transport, smart cities, safety and security domains
  • 5G thematic calls. Most prominent examples are:
    • call “Space and 5G Convergence: Transport & Logistics” issued in partnership with the UK Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) looking at supporting the emergence of services relying on converged 5G terrestrial and satellite communication networks improving efficiency and environmental sustainability in the logistics sector
    • The upcoming Announcement of Opportunity (AO) “Space for smart and unmanned shipping”, an activity funded by the 5G SPL, ESA´s BASS and Navigation Innovation and Support Programme (NAVISP), aims to support the development of space based downstream services and solutions relying on advanced technologies such as 5G and PNT (Positioning, Navigation and Timing) in the smart and uncrewed shipping domain
    • In the context of smart cities, the agreements with the cities of L’Aquila, Rome and Torino are the basis for issuing a number of thematic calls focused on the needs of the municipalities (5G for L’ART). A new Announcement of Opportunity called “Intelligent Transport”, funded by ESA´s BASS programme, addresses topics such as sustainable and safe mobility and advanced traveller advisory systems. The projects will demonstrate the value of space assets integrated with 5G networks and/or the potential of 5G networks to augment space assets performance.

Lastly, NAVISP has launched a Thematic Open Call under its Element 2 to implement pilot projects to demonstrate the viability of 5G PNT solutions in use cases representative of Industry 4.0, smart cities and critical users demanding a robust back-up to satellite navigation positioning and timing.

For more information, visit our business opportunities section and ‘Space for 5G’, or write at 5G@esa.int.

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