Global 5G non-terrestrial networks show growth but stay in infancy

With many operators in multiple countries and territories planning services, and with a number of providers already announcing commercial launches, satellites are rapidly gaining prominence in the world of cellular communication.

However, a report from GSA has stated that the full extent of the potential of non-terrestrial networks (NTNs) to complement terrestrial networks as well as phone services and broadband is still unclear.

Acording to the Non-terrestrial 5G networks and satellite connectivity report from GSA, which plays a role in promoting technology based on 3GPP standards, by the end of March 2024 there were 77 publicly announced partnerships between operators and satellite vendors across 43 countries and territories.

In total, 50 operators in 37 countries and territories have planned satellite services, with nine operators in nine countries and territories currently evaluating, testing or trialling these. Currently, 10 operators in 10 countries and territories have commercially launched satellite services, an increase of two operators since the previous update in August 2023.

The report noted that even though the process of launching 5G NTN worldwide is still in its infancy, the technology is already becoming widely adopted to provide rural coverage. This remains the most popular use for satellites by far, forming 57% of all identified partnerships. GSA has recorded 34 countries and territories that are either planning, evaluating and testing or have launched satellite broadband services.

GSA highlighted that Timor-Leste is the latest to have launched services, joining the UK, Mexico, Japan, Papua New Guinea and the United Arab Emirates. Five more are currently evaluating, testing or trialling them, and 26 are in the planning stages.

The study pinpointed satellite-to-mobile phone as a hot topic in the mobile device industry, largely because it can connect unmodified smartphones in the most remote and rural areas, with satellite firms offering this capability using terrestrial frequency spectrum owned by the mobile operator rather than dedicated satellite frequencies. GSA found three major companies were driving partnerships with operators in this space, including SpaceX, AST SpaceMobile and Lynk.

As of April 2024, four partnerships were currently evaluating, testing or trialling satellite-to-mobile phone technology, with another 18 planning to launch. There were 14 countries and territories either planning, evaluating, testing or with launched satellite-to-cellphone partnerships. Out of these, Ghana, Japan, New Zealand and the US are currently evaluating, testing or trialling the technology, with another 11 currently planning services.

“The number of operator and satellite provider partnerships will grow over the coming months and years. The rate at which partnerships launch their services will also increase. This is already evident in the continuing growth in launched broadband satellite services over the past four months, with the current majority in the planning phase,” said Joe Barrett, president of Global Mobile Suppliers Association (GSA) commenting on the report.

“The increasing need for broadband, voice and data services and satellite-to cellphone technology will see more and more operators expanding to cater to people in rural areas, as well as in the event of natural disasters affecting terrestrial networks. As a result, GSA expects to see more countries with satellite service offerings soon.”

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