Ericsson, Qualcomm test space-based 5G with Thales

Ericsson, Qualcomm Technologies and French aerospace company Thales announced plans to take 5G “out of this world” using a network of low Earth orbit (LEO) satellites.

There’s no network yet, but each of the companies conducted their own detailed research and decided now’s the time to enter the phase where they conduct tests of smartphones and validate 5G non-terrestrial networks (NTN).

Of course, it’s a crowed LEO space with the likes of SpaceX’s Starlink among those in the business of delivering broadband connectivity in unserved and underserved areas.

In a press release, Ericsson, Qualcomm and Thales suggested 5G NTNs could provide coverage in places normally only covered by legacy satellite systems with limited data connectivity capabilities. Besides sectors like transportation, energy and health, potential use cases involve back-up support to terrestrial networks in the event of major network outages or disasters.  

The companies received the go-ahead by 3GPP in March through specifications in Release 17. Their initial tests will take place in France.

“As a 3GPP-backed technology, 5G NTNs will be able to capitalize on a large ecosystem of standardized products and components,” the companies said. “The new specification also enables the inclusion of NTN technologies in 5G devices, providing opportunities for technology vendors to easily and quickly scale 5G NTN compatibility across devices.”

Hakan Djuphammar, head of Special Projects at Ericsson's technology arm, told Reuters that the companies will first do simulations on the ground before carrying out tests in space. He also told the news outlet that discussions are underway for testing on the International Space Station and with a few satellites.

Ericsson’s task is to verify a 5G virtual Radio Access Network (RAN) stack, modified to handle radio signals propagating via the fast-moving LEO satellites.

Qualcomm will provide test phones verifying that 5G NTNs can be accessed by future 5G smartphones, while Thales’ role is to verify a 5G radio satellite payload suitable for deployment on LEO satellites.

In a statement, Ericsson SVP and CTO Erik Ekudden said it’s too early to say when any resulting 5G equipped prototype satellite could be launched into orbit for real operational use. However, the highly technical ground-based testing and validation work planned between Ericsson, Thales and Qualcomm Technologies is “key to making it happen.”