An Overview of 5G and Non-Terrestrial Networks

An Overview of 5G and Non-Terrestrial Networks

The 5G non-terrestrial network is a powerful new technology combining two advancements in telecommunications technology: fifth-generation mobile networks and non-terrestrial networks. 

5G non-terrestrial networks are one example of a blended connectivity solution or framework that combines multiple network types. But how feasible would integrating 5G non-terrestrial networks in global communications be? 

In this guide, we’re exploring some of the major elements of this exciting telecommunications breakthrough. We’ll define non-terrestrial networks, explain how they work, cover advantages and potential challenges, then discuss how 5G and non-terrestrial communication technologies could be a powerful duo in global comms. 

While 5G rollouts are still in progress, combining this state-of-the-art technology with dependable, robust satellite networks could significantly enhance network reliability and coverage. 

What Is a Non-Terrestrial Network?

Before we explore non-terrestrial networks, let’s break down their counterpart—terrestrial networks. 

Perhaps the best example of terrestrial networking is fourth-generation long-term evolution (4G LTE) wireless technology. This system relies upon long-range, tall and high-powered towers to transmit long-distance waves between devices. However, 4G LTE is terrestrial only; the system relies solely upon physical infrastructure built on the ground. 

Non-terrestrial networks, however, transmit signals using some ground-based technologies in addition to aerial devices. Non-terrestrial systems have a few major components:

  1. A terrestrial terminal (like a smartphone)
  2. An aerial or space device or vehicle (a satellite is one example)
  3. A service link between terrestrial and aerial or space devices
  4. A feeder link that connects the non-terrestrial network to the terrestrial network

Currently, there are three main non-terrestrial network station types (the second component  in the list above):

  • Satellites – Depending on their orbital altitude, satellites can transmit a variety of data from one device to another. Satellite phones, for instance, connect by sending signals between phones via space-based satellites. 
  • Unmanned aerial vehicles – Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), sometimes called drones, cruise at low altitudes, providing a broadband link between devices.
  • High-altitude platform systems – High-altitude platform systems (HAPS) fly higher than UAVs but much lower than satellites. They, too, provide a link between cellular devices. 

Satellites are by far the most common and becoming more robust with time. In 2020 alone, telecommunications providers and other entities launched around 1,300 satellites into space. 

How Do Non-Terrestrial Networks Work?

Non-terrestrial network architecture varies, but systems generally either:

  • Exclusively use non-terrestrial technologies
  • Use a combination of terrestrial devices and non-terrestrial devices

One example of the former is the satellite phone. Satellite phones often skip terrestrial cell networks altogether, sending signals via satellites in space instead of cell towers. 

But a blended connectivity solution uses both terrestrial towers and non-terrestrial devices to transmit messages. Instead of moving from one tower to the next, signals move from the device (terminal) to the tower, where they’re emitted to a satellite. The satellite sends the signal to the receiving terminal via terrestrial satellite terminals. 

Advantages of Non-Terrestrial Networks

Non-terrestrial networks offer a variety of advantages:

  • Increased access – Terrestrial systems require terrestrial real estate. If you’ve ever spent time exploring or working in a remote region—or an area with hazardous terrain—you might have experienced losing your cell signal if there isn’t a tower nearby. Non-terrestrial networks can address this problem. Since signal transmission devices are aerial or orbit in space, they can provide enhanced cellular access in these areas.
  • Redundancy – Even in areas with robust terrestrial infrastructure, systems can fail. In the event of a widespread system failure, non-terrestrial infrastructure can provide a backup network for sustained connectivity. So, in areas where both systems are in place, users with terrestrial and non-terrestrial compatibility would rarely lose service. 
  • Reduced latency – While 4G LTE offered the lowest lag available in cellular networks at its inception, latency in data transfer remains a concern (especially over 4G LTE’s long wave transmissions). Low Earth orbit (LEO) satellites can reduce lag, but LEO isn’t always the best satellite choice for cellular networks. 
  • Additional features – Non-terrestrial networking tools (especially satellites) offer other, non-telecommunications features. For instance, geosynchronous equatorial orbit (GEO) satellites are often used to collect weather data. Medium Earth orbit (MEO) satellites provide navigational data to a variety of devices (like smartphones and dedicated GPS tools).

Potential Challenges of Using Non-Terrestrial Networks

While they certainly have benefits, non-terrestrial networks aren’t perfect on their own. Some potential disadvantages of using only non-terrestrial networks for telecommunications include:

  • CostDrones and HAPS require fuel to operate, and building aircraft remains a costly proposition. Placing a new satellite in orbit is an even more expensive process. And while LEO satellites are some of the cheapest to install, it would take numerous satellites to create a robust communications network using LEO satellites alone. 
  • Device compatibility – While smartphone manufacturers are beginning to incorporate satellite telecom technology, this integration is far from widespread. For example, the iPhone 14 uses satellite networks to connect users with first responders if they’re out of terrestrial range. Currently, blended connectivity devices (those that can use both terrestrial and non-terrestrial networks) are typically only available to niche industries, like emergency response services. 
  • Resistance to implementation – The US has begun allocating limited funds toward improving satellite communications infrastructure for combat applications. However, telecommunications experts report that current budgets simply aren’t practical for timely, widespread implementation. And, niche (but highly publicized) civilian resistance to new technology rollouts could continue challenging telecommunications advancements. 
  • Technical challenges – A hybrid model that seamlessly integrates 5G and non-terrestrial infrastructure is yet to be perfected. While this was simpler to navigate with 4G LTE (which featured long waves), 5G networks use shorter waves, which are more easily subjected to interference from trees, buildings and other obstacles. 

What is 5G?

Fifth-generation (5G) cellular networks are distinct from 4G LTE (5G’s predecessor):

  • 5G uses shorter waves with higher frequencies
  • 5G offers reduced latency
  • 5G offers significantly higher speeds for digital downloads and streaming

But, while 4G’s long waves were easily transmitted via large terrestrial towers, 5G signals require numerous, small stations to send data between devices. Moreover, because 5G requires new infrastructure, rollout in the US is still ongoing. And, while new smartphones are 5G compatible, older models only support 4G LTE.

Non-Terrestrial Networks and 5G

Telecommunications experts still have much to uncover about how 5G and non-terrestrial networks could intertwine. 

A combination of 5G and non-terrestrial network technologies could be powerful. The speed and reliability of 5G, combined with the robust coverage capabilities of satellite networks, could increase access for everyday consumers and make networks even more reliable in remote areas. 

And while developments in civilian technology are critical, first responders and emergency personnel could substantially benefit from the increased development of 5G non-terrestrial networks. However, voice isn’t the only significant feature of digital devices. In crisis scenarios or remote areas, first responders’ improved access to navigational information and online resources could significantly bolster the response efforts that protect and support civilians. 

Partner with IP Access for Reliable Connectivity

Creating a 5G non-terrestrial network is a holistic process that’s still in development. But, telecommunications experts are hopeful that combining these two critical communications technologies could vastly improve global access to reliable cellular networks. 

And, for critical community members like first responders, comms access and reliability are crucial to emergency response. That’s why IP Access International created First Responder Net—a network that combines all available terrestrial cellular and satellite networks. 

First Responder Net is:

  • LEO, MEO and GEO compatible
  • Supported by a Public Safety Network Operations Center 24/7/365
  • Reliable even when the grid is down—or when response teams are in remote locations

This network has the potential to change the way your agency handles crisis comms, everyday dispatch and so much more. Learn more about First Responder Net today.