The world has never been more connected. Yet the rise of 5G is being accompanied by a further wave of connectivity-based technology innovations that has significant implications for US government organizations. There’s far more to the disruptive power of 5G than fast speeds for mobile broadband services. It’s time to broaden the focus to emerging network architecture that offers unprecedented levels of operational flexibility.
The world’s largest commercial airborne antenna
In helping leading corporations and government entities develop breakthrough applications, I’ve got a real feel for the potential of the opportunities coming down the line right now. Government personnel in the field especially rely on connectivity for mission critical operations. No matter what the application, there needs to be a robust network in place to facilitate effective communications in operation and combat in the harshest environments.
5G brings three primary use cases; high data rate enhanced mobile broadband (eMMB), massive machine type communications (mMTC) for large numbers of machine to machine or IoT like devices, and ultra-reliable low latency communications (URLLC). The promise was that these could be merged in any way needed to meet customer requirements; each customer being provided with a unique and elastic network slice.
Of course, the reality is that commercial network operator’s revenue is primarily dependant on broadband connections; currently this is the limit of most public 5G implementations. That said the 5G private networks and open interfaces allow an unprecedented level of customization, within the 3GPP specification, to deliver on the promise of a network for any application. The major issue here is often finding an unbiased technical advisor who can navigate through the myriad of available options and possibilities.
When we look in more detail at the RAN 5G features such as beamforming are coming into play here, while distributed MIMO (multiple-input, multiple-output) are being evaluated to improve tactical communications. Beyond these developments, innovative 5G applications in smart warehousing offer considerable advantages for government depts and maintenance facilities that require networks that allow for efficient movement and tracking of assets.
Meanwhile, savvy government organizations are already exploring ways to exploit non-terrestrial networks (NTNs) and 5G hybrid networks, as well as leveraging high-altitude platforms (HAPs) along with satcom to provide more advanced and flexible solutions.
Antenna beamforming capability
So, let me dig a little deeper into some of these areas of connectivity by examining specific use cases. On the subject of beamforming, the team here at Cambridge Consultants worked with Stratospheric Platforms Limited (SPL) on the world’s largest commercial airborne antenna. The antenna will be mounted on a unique aircraft designed by Northrop Grumman’s Scaled Composites. The antenna’s beamforming capability effectively paints hundreds of precise beams. Each beam has high-capacity 5G coverage, around 200Mb/s, which can be delivered over specific and extremely remote areas from the stratosphere.
In a second example, CC teamed up with SmartSky Networks to deliver office-grade, multi-Mbps inflight connectivity with minimal latency. Beamforming from ground stations and the aircraft antennas enables uniform and resilient coverage over vast geographies and to fast-moving jets.
One of the questions I’m often asked right now is why NTNs are gaining traction. The answer begins with LEO (low earth orbit) satellites which are already well established. Iridium Communications launched the first such network in the late 1990s, and in 2019 completed a $3 billion satellite constellation upgrade to provide global coverage of its latest services. A number of new LEO projects have also emerged in the last couple of years with the goal of providing further connectivity to every point on the planet. These constellations are gaining traction thanks to a number of factors, from innovative satellite designs and cheaper launch costs to advanced electronics and antenna capabilities.
HAPs – in combination with larger scalable antennas – are a more recent development. Such platforms come in various forms, including balloons and aerostats. A promising platform for HAPs connectivity is uncrewed aerial vehicles (UAVs), which fly at a higher altitude (around 60,000 to 80,000 feet, which has the benefit of stable weather and no commercial air traffic to contend with). UAV platforms benefit from advances in automation, intelligence and energy, enabling them to fly almost autonomously for weeks at a time. HAP-based networks are designed to provide connectivity services that can be integrated into terrestrial cellular services in areas with no ground infrastructure.
Hybrid terrestrial/NTN architecture
For both HAPs and LEO systems, the key ingredient to the hybrid terrestrial/NTN architecture is the development of advanced 4G and 5G antenna systems that have pushed the area of beamforming and phased arrays forward significantly. A commercial 4G or 5G antenna today features 64 antenna elements. However, new antenna technology has been developed that can transmit hundreds of beams simultaneously that can be narrowed so finely and accurately that it’s the equivalent of one user having their own personal cell site.
My colleague Derek Long discusses NTN antennas in more detail in this CC whitepaper. But suffice to say that advanced antenna technologies make it possible to turn a UAV or a LEO satellite into a 5G base station or backhaul provider that can be integrated into terrestrial 5G networks.
The development of advanced antenna and wider technology innovation gives me and my colleagues confidence that LEOs and HAPs will both have their place in the future 5G ecosystem, determined by the economics and the expectations of the users and the service to be provided. For example, HAPs will typically provide connectivity over a specific rural area with a population density that is too low by terrestrial standards to economically provide cellular services, but large enough to justify deploying a HAP to serve that area. HAPs can also communicate with standard devices and allow seamless roaming between networks.
Meanwhile, LEOs will be able to serve areas with much lower density populations because the constellation coverage is global by default. Even though LEO bandwidth will be somewhat lower than terrestrial connectivity due to power, distance and signal constraints, such systems will still enable previously unreachable populations to get online with sufficiently fast connections.
Of course, we are not there yet. Just as 5G will evolve from its current incarnation to the full promise of gigabit speeds and millisecond latencies, NTNs have their own evolutionary path to pursue before full integration can be achieved. However, the enabling trends and technologies for this hybrid 5G architecture are coming together at a rapid pace. If you are interested in finding out more on the technology that’s driving this innovation, please drop me an email. Let’s continue the conversation.