6G & Small Satellites: the future of communications is in the making

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11 Jan 2022
5 min read
 6G & Small Satellites: the future of communications is in the making

In our previous article, we discussed how incredibly fast telecommunications technology has progressed since Marconi’s pioneering work with rudimentary transmitters, all the way to modern broadband mobile communications serving high-density areas. And not without highlighting the critical role space technology plays in bringing these key technologies to remote areas and to aerospace and maritime applications.  

Mobile communications have evolved from generation to generation, adding better capabilities, and the trend is far from being over.
Initially, the first two mobile comms generations aimed to ensure the efficient transmission of voice information. Newer generations added more digital technologies, bandwidth-efficient modulation schemes and a smarter use of an increasingly contested spectrum, allowing faster data rates, more secure radio access technology and a breadth of protocol layers ready to carry internet protocol (IP) datagrams. This, in turn, unlocked the possibility of merging mobile and global networks seamlessly, giving the end users the possibility of enjoying the same services and applications they used on their computers now from their smartphones, without compromising on quality.

5G Is Still Growing Strong

The last generation of deployed mobile communications —the fifth generation, or 5G—incorporates capabilities that were unheard of in previous generations. To exploit the potential, a new radio-access technology known as NR (New Radio) was devised. The key innovative factor of defining a brand-new radio access technology meant that NR, unlike previous evolutions, was not restricted by a need to retain backwards compatibility. This permitted rolling out a set of key use cases:

  • Enhanced mobile broadband (eMBB), which appears as the most straightforward evolution from previous generations, enabling larger data volumes and further enhanced user experience.
  • Massive machine-type communication (mMTC), providing services that are characterized by a massive number of devices, such as remote sensors, actuators, and monitoring equipment. Key requirements for such services include ultra-low device cost and ultra-low power consumption, allowing for extended device battery life of up to at least several years. Typically, each device consumes and generates only a relatively small amount of data, thus, support for high data rates is of less importance.
  • Ultra-reliable and low-latency communication (URLLC), with services targeted to ensure very low latency and extremely high reliability. Examples hereof are traffic safety, smart cities, automatic control, power grid and factory automation.

Although 5G was deployed several years ago (Release 15), it keeps evolving. The newest evolution of 5G (Release 18>), is called 5G Advanced and it will add support for new applications and use cases. 5G Advanced is expected to bring significant enhancements around smarter network management by incorporating AI/ML techniques for beam management, load balancing, channel state information feedback enhancement, improvements in positioning accuracy and user equipment network slicing. 5G Advanced is envisioning incorporating low-latency audio and video streaming services aimed for Extended reality (XR), along with a more energy-efficient use of network resources, and Deterministic Networking (DetNet) capabilities to ensure deterministic data paths for real-time applications with extremely low data loss rates and packet delay variation.  

More importantly, recent releases of 5G have been progressing on integrating satellite communications with 5G NR techniques called “non-terrestrial network”, or NTN. The study of non-terrestrial networks includes identifying NTN scenarios, architectures and use cases by considering the integration of satellite access in the 5G network including roaming, broadcast/multicast, secure private networks, etc.  
The synergy between 5G and satellites is neither mere speculation nor hype, but tangible technical traction towards integrating space technology and mobile communications together.

Next stop: 6G

Whilst 5G Advanced is about adapting the already established generation for new incremental use cases, 6G (Release 20>) is natively designed for the human digital needs of the next decade. The sixth generation is already in the making, coordinated by the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP), the standards development organization behind the 6G initial research of enabling technologies, the definition of the requirements, the technical steering, and identification of use cases. An activity which is already ongoing and will span for the next half decade or so, refining the architecture and commencing implementation.  
The core driving factors for 6G will revolve around enhancing human communication, including immersive experience, telepresence, multimodal collaboration and interaction. 6G will also aim to enhance machine communication, with the focus on autonomous machines and vehicles capable of sensing their surrounding environment in real time (network as a sensor). 6G will provide key enabling services, such as hyper-precise positioning, mapping, and smart health.

How Can Space Augment 6G?

Satellites and humans carrying smartphones have more in common than what meets the eye. Both are moving nodes in adaptive, time-variant networks. Unlike us, humans, who roam around cities following rather complex adaptive patterns, satellites describe more deterministic paths in orbit, and by choosing their orbiting geometry carefully, connected constellations in Low Earth Orbit (LEO) can be deployed to achieve global coverage with low latency and smaller propagation losses.

Today, almost half of the world's population still lives in rural and remote areas that do not have basic connectivity services1. Non-terrestrial networks can provide affordable and reliable broadband services for areas where mobile operators do not find commercial feasibility to build terrestrial networks. What is more, by integrating different non-terrestrial network systems together, such as LEO satellites, unmanned aerial vehicles, and high-altitude platforms, non-terrestrial networks can be flexibly rolled out, connecting people through various devices such as smartphones and laptops, and helping sense and monitor critical infrastructure in a secure and power-efficient manner.

Suffice to say, for mobile networks the sky is not the limit. The solutions to reinforce the mission of helping humans and machines interact and exchange data seamlessly are ready and waiting for their turn to shoot for the stars. Small, cost-effective satellites have an immense potential to expand universal coverage, close the digital divide around the world and benefit global society and the environment.

Here, at ReOrbit, we offer ready-to-go space systems and avionics to streamline data flow in space for flexible and timely missions at any orbit. Join us on a journey of simplifying connectivity in space and move your data fast with ReOrbit.

1 https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SP.RUR.TOTL.ZS



Ignacio Chechile
Ignacio Chechile
Chief Technology Officer