Satellite companies watching where DoD goes with 5G

Hughes VP Rick Lober: DoD could take advantage of low Earth orbit satellites to deliver 5G for mobile users

WASHINGTON — A $600 million DoD initiative to demonstrate 5G wireless networks at military bases nationwide is primarily focused on terrestrial communications but is being closely watched by the satellite industry as non-terrestrial networks increasingly become part of the 5G ecosystem.  

These DoD experiments with 5G also will serve as an indicator of how the military intends to employ commercial technologies for fixed and mobile communications, which could shape future demand for space-based services.

 “The question is where do they go with it?” said Rick Lober, vice president and general manager of the defense business division of Hughes Network Systems. 

Satellite operators Hughes and Viasat are among several telecommunications technology firms that have won Pentagon contracts under the 5G pilot project.

“After this experimentation phase, we understand that in the 2024 budget cycle we may see it being programmed in for operational use,” Lober told SpaceNews. 

The next step would be for DoD to take advantage of low Earth orbit satellites with lower latencies to deliver 5G for mobile users, Lober said. 

“What we’re doing now is terrestrial. But what’s coming next is that a 5G standard is going to be adopted for space. So we’re going to be talking about satellite-direct-to-phone connections, probably using LEO networks,” he said.

Hughes, an investor in OneWeb, plans to partner with the company on DoD 5G efforts. 

Most recently, satellite communication provider SatixFy Technology announced it successfully demonstrated 5G backhaul communications connected to a OneWeb satellite in low Earth orbit.

Amazon’s LEO network known as Project Kuiper has teamed with Verizon Communications to pair Verizon’s 5G terrestrial mobile network with Kuiper satellites. 

The Pentagon views the 5G race as part of the U.S. strategic competition with China, and DoD could leverage mobile 5G to fill communications needs not currently met by military satellites, said Lober. 

A major development for space-based 5G was the recent release of standards by the Third Generation Partnership Project (3GPP), the international body responsible for defining technical specifications for mobile wireless networks.. The latest standards release — 3GPP Release 17 — deals with non-terrestrial networks and supports expansion of coverage using satellites.

“Commercial industry is driving that, and I think the DoD can really take advantage of it,” said Lober. “5G gives you much higher throughput, and much lower latency. And what a lot of people don’t realize is that lower latency allows you to do edge computing on the battlefield.”

The satcom industry expects more funding for 5G in the Pentagon’s 2024 budget, he said. “We hope to see funding to take what we’ve done experimenting with terrestrial and make it operational.”

Commercial mobile 5G from space would be a worthwhile option for DoD to fill future narrowband communications needs, he added. The U.S. Space Force is considering buying two more Mobile User Objective System (MUOS) satellites that provide voice and low-rate data transfer for mobile users.

Current MUOS satellites are oversubscribed, and the Space Force is conducting an analysis of alternatives to determine whether it should buy two more MUOS, opt for a new design or use commercial services. 

One of the issues with MUOS is that there are not enough user handsets and terminals in the U.S. military to take advantage of the features of the more advanced payload. Most users have older terminals that only communicate with MUOS legacy payload that has outdated technology. 

“This has been a big problem,” said Lober. “Commercially, we look at space, ground terminal and network management, all in parallel.”

Now the industry is moving to space-based 5G and “we feel that the DoD should strongly consider that for their narrowband analysis of alternatives,” said Lober. “The beauty of that is that if you can get the same device to operate terrestrial and space, you’re really advancing things.”

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