Intelsat: 5G needs satellites

BARCELONA, Spain—While Intelsat has been in the news a lot for its role in the C-Band Alliance (CBA) and its controversial proposal to make more midband spectrum available for 5G, the satellite operator has other intentions in mind while making the rounds at Mobile World Congress 2019.  

The company will be here to meet with its numerous mobile network operator customers from around the world and press upon the industry the role of space-based communications in 5G.

Intelsat is a member of ATIS and earlier this year announced it had joined GSMA. Both organizations play a role in defining 5G standards.

“We want to be at the same table as the mobile network operators, just to be able to explain to them how they could leverage what we are bringing to the table,” said Jean-Philippe Gillet, Intelsat’s vice president and general manager for broadband, in an interview with FierceWirelessTech.

Gillet said mobile operators will need to rely on a variety of technologies to deliver on the promise of 5G, and space-based communications is one of them.

His message echoes that of a white paper the company published earlier this month that says mobile operators will need to rely on a variety of wireless infrastructure in radio access and transport networks to make 5G use cases a reality.

“Since 5G embraces multiple 3GPP and non-3GPP technologies, including 4G LTE, 5G NR, Wi-Fi and space-based systems, the next mobile generation will be a network of networks,” the white paper states. “Space-based platforms were recently added to the mix of 5G access technologies by the 3GPP, and the standards body is working on specifying requirements for satellite access that will be included with the full 5G specs in Release 16. The 3GPP recognizes that satellite networks can deliver ubiquitous coverage and availability for 5G industrial and mission critical applications.”

But all of this raises the question: What about latency?

“Latency is latency and on satellites, you just can’t avoid it, there’s no way around this,” he said, referring to the additional time it takes to travel to the sky and back. But he advocates making technology decisions based on use cases. For example, controlling an automated vehicle will require the least amount of latency, and satellites aren’t going to be ideal in that situation.

However, there are other applications where the latency doesn’t need to be so low. The way Intelsat sees it, there are different requirements for latency standards. The company, for example, has been supplying the satellite service that powers the Kymeta hot spot service, which can essentially turn an emergency vehicle into a hot spot during events with especially heavy traffic.

Intelsat also has alternatives to its own fleet of GEO satellites. It was an early investor in OneWeb, and it continues to work with the company on hybrid GEO/LEO solutions, so each company can offer their customers the benefits of both of those solutions. (It’s worth noting that in 2017, Intelsat’s proposed merger with OneWeb fell through after failing to get the requisite bondholders’ acceptance of the deal.)

RELATED: Google, Intelsat spar over C-Band

As for the status of that other issue on Intelsat’s plate involving C-band spectrum, that’s sure to be a topic of some conversations during MWC19. The timing on that is unclear in terms of when the FCC might make a decision, but an Intelsat spokesperson said the company hopes that the FCC could complete its work in the second quarter—although the timing of a report and order is entirely in the FCC’s court. 

“Regardless of when the report and order happens, the goal of the CBA is to be the only proposal that could be immediately implemented, delivering the much-needed spectrum within 18 to 36 months of the order,” the spokesperson told FierceWirelessTech.