Insight by Nokia

Advancing 5G in space through 3GPP NTN

“3GPP NTN would add coverage in areas that just aren't practical to cover today,” said Steve Vogelsang, chief technology officer of Nokia’s federal divisi...

Imagine a world where you can connect to the internet in the middle of a desert, or where emergency responders can access data in the most challenging environments on earth.

It may not be that far off, and the federal government is extremely interested.

Satellite communications is important to the Department of Defense and other U.S. federal agencies as Third Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) Non-Terrestrial Networks (NTN) are helping to enable satcom for 3GPP devices. 3GPP is helping connect, collect and communication in remote areas that otherwise would not be possible with more traditional forms of communications.

“3GPP NTN would add coverage in areas that just aren’t practical to cover today,” said Steve Vogelsang, chief technology officer of Nokia’s federal division. “It can bring service to certain parts of the world where ground-based infrastructure lacks the reliability and resiliency needed on today’s battlefield.

3GPP NTN doesn’t rely on land-based cellular towers to give devices service. Instead, 3GPP NTN operates from the stratosphere or in low-earth orbit. That service will be complementary to the service we already use for our devices today.

“There’s a huge movement in DoD and government broadly, to leverage commercial technologies including cellular,” said Ken Riordan, principal architect at Nokia’s federal division. “We’re envisioning a future where every first responder, every warfighter has a smartphone. That’s part of the communication suite. Now that they’ve got a smartphone, we make sure that there’s reliable, resilient coverage everywhere.”

But DoD and other agencies can leverage far more than just smartphones. Intelligence sensors, cameras and other payloads will be able to operate in environments that were only a fantasy just a few years ago.

“You can imagine doing equipment maintenance on a vehicle that’s deployed in a remote location, and you have direct access to cloud-based instructions,” Vogelsang said.

One of the advantages of 3GPP NTN is that it is low cost, especially at a time when the government is working to use commercial off-the-shelf products, so agencies don’t need to reinvent the wheel every time they have a need.

“There are billions of 3GPP devices operating right now on planet Earth, and economies of scale have made them really inexpensive,” Riordan said. “Billions have also been spent advancing the 3GPP technology in the commercial space, including at Nokia. Now the U.S. federal government can harness these investments and adapt them for mission-focused use cases.” 3GPP is the term for the standards organizations that develop protocols for mobile devices and unites systems like 5G, 4G and other networks across the world.

Most of the device’s civilians use today operate on 3GPP standards. Vogelsang said he thinks the government will be able to save money and get good service by using this technology.

“The mobile networking market is approaching $2 trillion in annual service plans,” he said.  “There’s a huge amount of money flowing around that ultimately creates this technology, so why not figure out how to make use of it for both commercial and government applications.”

Riordan said moving into that kind of environment can also help solve some of the government’s interoperability problems between offices.

“A lot of history books have been written about how the Marines can’t talk to the Army, who can’t talk to the Navy, because they all have different radios,” he said. “How about we give everybody the same radio to greatly reduce that problem? That’s the trajectory with 3GPP in the military.  NTN will build on that momentum.”

That doesn’t mean everything is set to go, however. There are a few challenges.

“Low-earth orbit constellations need to have a lot of satellites if you want to deliver high performance,” Vogelsang said. “One challenge the industry and the government are trying to work through is how do we get these constellations deployed.”

Riordan estimated that with the deployment of 6G in the next five or so years, 3GPP NTN will be ready for primetime.

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