In today’s modern society, the unpredictability of the world around us is evident. Recent global events have underscored the fact that, despite our desires, we cannot always control nature and external forces. Satellites, on the other hand, serve as a reliable safeguard for our crucial communication infrastructure, providing protection in the event of major disruptions that could affect essential aspects of our lives such as financial transactions, trade, communication, the media, security and power distribution.

We must master our own domains

To governments all over the world, the lesson is quite clear: Every nation needs to strengthen its ability to adapt, deploy and control its critical communication infrastructure under all thinkable circumstances — be they international conflicts, impacts of the climate catastrophe, earthquakes or whatever else the future holds in store for us.

Normally, we would rely on the capabilities of our existing terrestrial networks to communicate in times of a major global crisis. However, in these times of unrest and uncertainty, we must have alternative networks in place to maintain our ability to communicate and safeguard critical infrastructure. This is why we should turn to space and non-terrestrial networks (NTN) in order to be prepared for just about anything.

The integration of NTN and terrestrial (TN) technologies goes beyond mere coexistence; it represents a seamless merger in which one complements the other to create a unified, robust 5G ecosystem. By leveraging the strengths of both, such as the wide coverage and resilience of NTN with the high capacity and low latency of TN, we can unlock unprecedented possibilities for connectivity. 

One example of how we are already embracing the potential of NTN is the deployment of high-speed, low-latency mobile broadband internet via satellite in remote and rural locations. This is typically established through satellites beaming internet to a dish on the user’s roof, which then passes the signal on to a Wi-Fi router. Another example of new business emerging from TN and NTN is the first 5G New Radio-compatible smartphones. And even though it is still early days, emergency messaging and car assistance have already been demonstrated. With further advances in 5G New Radio, new high-speed data and voice services will almost certainly be launched.

5G satellite connectivity opens the door to transformative applications across various sectors, such as precision agriculture — where farming practices are enhanced through the optimization of water usage, pest control and boosting crop yield. Maritime and aviation connectivity likewise provide reliable, continuous connectivity for improved navigation and safety. 5G connectivity can also help transform the mining industry, enabling remote machinery operation to minimize human risk in hazardous conditions while enhancing operational efficiency.

Easier said than done

However, challenges remain. Things that may be simple to achieve in a terrestrial network can be extremely complicated in orbit. For instance, how do you provide direct connectivity between a satellite constellation and a standard mobile phone? This is a real challenge due to factors including spectrum, link budgets, high doppler shifts and increase in latency due to interference from terrain and weather.

One of the major initiatives to bridge the gap is the IRIS2 satellite constellation — the European Union’s answer to the pressing challenges of tomorrow. The constellation will offer enhanced 5G communication capacities to government users and businesses, while at the same time allowing mass-market commercial applications including mobile and broadband satellite access.

To develop this resilient and innovative network, governmental organizations and private companies across the terrestrial and non-terrestrial connectivity industry must work together to close the gap. A joint consortium has been established and will be led by companies such as Airbus Defence and Space, Eutelsat, Hispasat, SES and Thales Alenia Space, together with the ESA.

The integrated team aims to foster collaboration among all European players across the entire connectivity value chain with a view to support a large variety of governmental applications in the domains of surveillance, crisis management, connection and the protection of key infrastructures. The consortium is currently building the foundation of the new network and is reaching out to specialist small and medium enterprises, such as Gatehouse Satcom in Denmark, to provide critical components that make the grand project viable.

The private sector is consolidating, too

Europe’s IRIS2-space program may be the first large-scale case of the unification of standardized 5G terrestrial and non-terrestrial network technology. But the story has more to it than securing critical governmental needs; it’s also about ensuring connectivity to our mobile phones in dead zones and enhancing how we access the internet from our homes. Big things are happening here too.

Recently, the Global System for Mobile Communications Association and the ESA signed a Memorandum of Intent to formalize a new, strategic partnership. The purpose is to enhance the competitive edge of both the mobile and satellite network industries and fast-track the development of innovative technology solutions for both governments, businesses, and consumers.

Another good example is from the United Kingdom, where the government is working to establish a potential 160 million pound ($202 million) scheme called Connectivity in Low Earth Orbit — or CLEO for short. The purpose of this is to fund a next-gen 5G satellite communication constellation. CLEO aims to deliver the research and development needed to support the launch of hundreds of satellites into space, revolutionizing the U.K.’s communication infrastructure and closing connectivity gaps.

What lies ahead of us?

The future of bridging the critical communication infrastructure gap will depend largely on governments and policymakers making decisions that help essential 5G terrestrial and non-terrestrial network technologies expand. The path forward is still complex and less predictable than many of us would prefer. Barriers may arise from bureaucratic rivalries, narrow-minded perspectives, inflexible organizational rules and procedures, inadequate information, detrimental leadership and more. But there is little doubt that the integration of terrestrial and non-terrestrial networks will bring about a profound transformation of the communications landscape.

This, in turn, will lead to a wealth of new business opportunities and competitive solutions for governments, corporations and private consumers. The important thing is that we keep providing citizens and governments worldwide with a resilient and versatile communication infrastructure capable of withstanding the effects of natural disasters, climate change and the like.

Thorleif Astrup Hallund has more than 25 years of experience with product and business management in telecommunication companies and tech startups. Currently, he holds the position of senior business development director at Gatehouse Satcom, spearheading business development with a focus on 5G products for non-terrestrial networks.

Thorleif Astrup Hallund has more than 25 years of experience with product and business management in telecommunication companies and tech startups. Currently, he holds the position of senior business development director at Gatehouse Satcom, spearheading...