In the news
“The GroundBreaker” may seem like a cheeky name for a 22-pound (10-kilo) object. But if the vision of Sateliot, the Barcelona-based satellite communication service provider behind the low-earth-orbit (LEO) satellite, comes to fruition, the moniker will have been well earned.
After a couple of weather delays, the GroundBreaker rode a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket into orbit on April 15. Here’s what makes it important: Sateliot_0 (its full name) is the first LEO satellite to operate on the 5G cellular standard—indeed, the first of a planned fleet of 250 spacecrafts intended to communicate with terrestrial cell towers, filling gaps in data networks worldwide.
Two very different (though complementary) use cases for these satellites emerged after the launch; while Sateliot is focused on the narrow-band Internet of Things, satellite maker AST Space Mobile lost no time in announcing it had used AT&T’s network to complete the first-ever direct phone connection from space over a completely unmodified smartphone. As these examples demonstrate, the potential for a constellation of 5G LEO satellites is enormous.
The Cognizant take
Sateliot views its mission as “democratizing IoT,” and Tim Meyer, Director, EV & Fleet Electrification/Smart Connected Mobility in Cognizant’s IoT Solutions Practice, believes the claim is not unreasonable.
“5G breaks up traffic services on a cellular network,” he explains. By focusing on the narrow band of that traffic, Sateliot is expanding the global footprint of the IoT devices that use it. “We’re talking about irrigation pumps in Africa, animal-tracking devices in remote parts of Asia,” Meyer says. North America, too, has its share of remote areas that will benefit. “These things are out in the field. Until now, they couldn’t collect data because they were nowhere near a terrestrial network.”
Meanwhile, AST Space Mobile has its eye on the midrange band of 5G communications, with the goal of eliminating the dead spots that limit phone communication. “They’re talking about a solution for people who stand to get lost in the mountains or the desert,” Meyer says. “Using your standard phone, you’ll get seamless global voice coverage.” Initially, at least, the coverage “won’t be cheap,” he says. Already, AST is talking about offering a day pass for hikers, adventurers and others who want to know that wherever they go, voice communication remains available.
Thanks to the emergence of the 5G LEO satellites, the narrow-band IoT and voice innovations share two things in common, Meyer notes: They work with unmodified devices and use similar backhaul schemes—that is, links between the backbone network and subnetworks.
For decades, tech leaders have observed that the value of any network increases exponentially as additional users are added. “Bringing this level of connectivity to those who lacked it before,” Meyer says, “will lift the economic well-being of large parts of the globe.”