Samsung joins Google, Facebook, SpaceX in satellite, UAV vision

Samsung is the latest to outline a vision using satellites to deliver wireless Internet to the unconnected around the world, but it's also proposing the satellite system be used to meet the needs of developed nations as well.

In a paper published last week, Farooq Khan, president of Samsung Research America, spelled out a vision of using low-cost, low-earth orbit (LEO) micro-satellites to provide Internet access to users worldwide. Each satellite would be capable of providing Terabit/second data rates with signal latencies better than or equal to ground-based systems, and instead of being geostationary focused like other projects out there, this one would be using the LEO satellites, which are closer to the ground.

Khan told FierceWirelessTech that the system outlined in the paper is a vision at this point. Generally, the next step would be a feasibility study. Millimeter wave spectrum also plays a big role in the system. The author of LTE for 4G Mobile Broadband, Khan also is a well-established expert in millimeter wave spectrum, having conducted research and published numerous papers on the subject. Samsung sponsored work at the University of Texas at Austin and also has been a key supporter of the NYU Wireless research into millimeter wave technologies.

In his "Mobile Internet from the Heavens" paper, Khan outlines the "omnify" principle, which stands for Order of Magnitude Increase every Five Years," referring to demand for data that increases 10 times every five years and will continue to increase at that rate with expectations for 1,000 times increase in the next 15 years. That remarkable growth is one reason the world needs another type of communications system.


Depiction of the Space Internet system, where satellite ground stations can be co-located with large data centers to reduce latency and costs. (Source: Samsung/Farooq Khan)

Samsung traditionally has looked at cellular and Wi-Fi, but it turns out these technologies need to be complemented with some non-traditional technologies like satellites and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) if the demand for bandwidth is going to be met. Even in the U.S., big companies struggle with laying down fiber and even when the economics pencil out, it takes a long time to get the rights to lay fiber.

Traditionally, all wireless communications, with the exception of point-to-point microwave backhaul links, use a relatively narrow band of the spectrum below 3 GHz, which has been attractive for non-line-of-sight (NLOS) point-to-multipoint wireless communications due to its favorable propagation characteristics, the paper notes.

In order to address the growing wireless capacity challenges, the author and his colleagues pioneered the use of the higher frequencies -- referred to as millimeter waves -- with a potential availability of more than 100 GHz spectrum for 5G mobile communications. At millimeter wave frequencies, radio spectrum use is lighter, and very wide bandwidths along with a large number of smaller size antennas can be used to provide "orders of magnitude increase" in capacity needed in the next 15 to 20 years.

Last October, Samsung Electronics announced two industry first milestones in the development of 5G networking technology: The company clocked a 7.5 Gbps, or 940 MB per second, data transmission rate in a stationary environment, and it was first to achieve an uninterrupted and stable connection at 1.2 Gbps, or 150 MB per second, in a mobile environment from a vehicle traveling at over 100 km/h.

Both the stationary and mobile tests were conducted over a 28 GHz 5G network. Samsung said it was able to overcome higher spectrum-related challenges through its own Hybrid Adaptive Array Technology, which uses millimeter wave frequency bands to enable the use of higher frequencies over greater distances.

Khan points out that a common misconception about satellite communications has been that signal delays are always higher compared to ground-based systems. However, as he explained in an interview with FierceWirelessTech, signals can actually travel faster in space when using LEO satellites rather than geostationary.

The benefits of going higher in frequency is you can get higher gain with smaller antennas but the challenge is with the electronic components. "But the advantage is some of these bands … you have so much bandwidth available when you go higher in frequency," he said.

The paper noted that the speed of signal propagation is generally about 1.4 times faster in space or air compared to the propagation in fiber optic cable. And unlike geostationary satellites, LEO satellites do not stay at a fixed location in the sky, so an entire constellation of satellites would be necessary to maintain constant coverage where a new satellite shows up at the location of the previous satellite. Khan's paper calls for some 4,600 satellites in orbit.

Khan also describes a viable radio architecture for what he calls the Space Internet in the form of a multi-common core (MCC) approach that is attractive from a power consumption perspective when ultra-fast data rates in the tens or hundreds of Gigabit/s to Terabit/s range require many GHz of bandwidth. The architecture is equally applicable to other wireless systems such as ground-based local area Wi-Fi and wide area wireless access, for mobile backhaul and access via UAVs, the research paper stated.

By eyeing satellites, Samsung joins a number of other companies that want to use satellites and UAVs in ways they weren't used previously. SpaceX, with backing from Google (NASDAQ: GOOG), is working on a mission to deliver Internet to remote regions. Google's own Project Loon uses balloons to reach the unconnected, and WorldVu Satellites Limited, operating as OneWeb, is also pursuing plans to build, launch and operate a low-earth-orbit satellite constellation -- with backing from Qualcomm (NASDAQ:QCOM) and Sir Richard Branson's Virgin Group.

In June, The Information reported that Facebook (NASDAQ: FB) backed off an earlier plan to pursue a geostationary satellite project to connect the unconnected in the world, but it's still moving forward with its Aquila project that uses drones to deliver Internet services.

For more:
- see this Wired article
- see this Register article
- see this Digital Trends article

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