Thales to test space-based 5G network
Written by: Richard Hook | Published:
 LEO satellite-based 5G network representation An LEO satellite-based 5G network is being tested (credit: Thales Alenia Space)

Aerospace giant Thales has partnered with telecoms duo Qualcomm Technologies and Ericsson to test and validate low Earth orbit (LEO) satellite-based 5G network technologies for mobile phones.

The testing and validation by Ericsson, Thales and Qualcomm follows a recent approval by global telecommunications standards body 3GPP and will support non-terrestrial networks (NTN) for the first time according to the trio.

Thales claimed that the goal of the testing will be to validate various technology components needed to enable 5G non-terrestrial networks, including a 5G smartphone, satellite payload and 5G network pieces on the ground.

According to Ericsson, the tests could mean that its future 5G smartphones could use 5G connectivity anywhere on Earth and provide complete global coverage for wideband data services, including places normally only covered by legacy satellite phone systems with limited data connectivity capabilities. The space-based network could also be used as backup support to terrestrial networks in the event of major network outages or disasters.

Erik Ekudden, senior vice-president and chief technology officer at Ericsson, added: “This testing and validation cooperation between Ericsson, Thales and Qualcomm Technologies will be a major milestone in the history of communications, as the ultimate result could effectively mean that no matter where you are on Earth – in the middle of an ocean or the remotest forest – high-end, secure and cost-effective connectivity will be available through collaborative 5G satellite and terrestrial connectivity.”

For the tests experts will use ground-based equipment to emulate the 5G radio propagation and time delays between an equipped satellite in orbit and connecting a 5G smartphone with the 5G radio access network at different places on the Earth’s surface.

“This testing and validation cooperation will be a major milestone in the history of communications"

Focussing on the trio’s technology specialisms, Ericsson plans to verify a 5G virtual RAN (vRAN) stack, modified to handle radio signals propagating through the vacuum of space and the Earth’s atmosphere via the fast-moving LEO satellites. Alongside this, Thales plans to verify a 5G radio satellite payload suitable for deployment on LEO satellites, while Qualcomm plans to provide test phones verifying that 5G NTN can be accessed by future 5G smartphones.

John Smee, senior vice-president of engineering at Qualcomm Technologies, said: “For 5G to fulfil on the promise of ubiquitous connectivity, it is imperative that it can also deliver network coverage in areas where terrestrial cellular networks do not exist, whether that be over oceans or in remote areas.

“Our planned research with Ericsson and Thales will kick off an important step in making this vital technology a reality. We are looking forward to what this collaboration can accomplish.”

The work also aims to validate that 5G NTN can be supported in a smartphone form factor, allowing tomorrow’s 5G smartphone to effectively become a satellite phone. Initial tests will take place in an emulated space environment in France, where the majority of European space-focused industry is based.

Philippe Keryer, executive vice-president, strategy, research and technology at Thales, concluded: “The deployment of 5G networks marks a step-change for the telecoms industry. It is a game changer, not only in terms of business opportunities, but also in the skills required to connect and protect billions of people and things.

“The research collaboration with Ericsson and Qualcomm Technologies will demonstrate the belief of our companies that 5G non-terrestrial networks will contribute to this revolution and will take network resiliency and security to the next level.”

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