Telcos are dragging their feet on non-terrestrial 5G

Telecoms operators are embracing the idea of using satellite technology to extend 5G mobile coverage, particularly in rural areas, but the market is not growing as quickly as we might have expected.

Mary Lennighan

April 24, 2024

3 Min Read

The number of operators brokering deals with satellite players is increasing and commercial launches are creeping up too, according to new data published by the Global mobile Suppliers Association (GSA) on Wednesday. But while the analyst firm sounds an optimistic note on future growth, it cautions that the market is still very much in its infancy.

As of the end of March, there were 77 publicly announced partnerships between telecoms operators and satellite vendors across 43 countries and territories worldwide, the GSA's latest market update shows. That's an increase of 28 over 12 months. Overall, 50 operators have planned satellite services – 12 more than the same time last year – nine of which are in the testing phase.

And there have been some commercial launches over the past year, although not many. There are 10 operators in 10 countries running commercial satellite services. The GSA says that's an increase of just two since August last year.

While commercial launches are not exactly coming thick and fast, it's clear from the number of ongoing trials – and related hype – that we are set for an uptick.

T-Mobile US, for example, sent its first direct-to-cell text message in partnership with Starlink in January, just days after the satellite firm launched a raft of new satellites into orbit. The telco has pledged to launch a commercial service as part of a bid to eliminate mobile coverage black spots later this year, but has yet to share a firm date.

Meanwhile, in the UK Virgin Media O2 last week revealed it will use Starlink to provide mobile backhaul for remote regions of the UK, having already trialled satellite connectivity for that purpose in northern Scotland. The deal is likely to be linked to the telco's 4G mobile network at this stage, given the extent of 5G rollout in the UK at present and the fact that VMO2 referred specifically to its shared rural network obligation in the announcement, But it's not much of a stretch to suggest that 5G satellite backhaul will follow at some point.

The GSA notes that while there may not be many commercially launched 5G non-terrestrial networks thus far, the technology is becoming widely adopted for rural coverage. Indeed, 57% of all telco/satellite operator partnerships the firm has identified have been brokered to that end, while satellite broadband services have been launched or are in the preparatory stages in 34 countries. Timor-Leste was the latest to launch, the GSA says.

"The number of operator and satellite provider partnerships will grow over the coming months and years," said GSA president Joe Barrett, in a somewhat non-specific prediction. "The rate at which partnerships launch their services will also increase. This is already evident in the continuing growth in launched broadband satellite services over the past four months, with the current majority in the planning phase."

Barrett pointed out that growing need for broadband, voice and data services and direct to device satellite technology will drive the market, with more operators moving to serve rural areas and deploy technology that can be used in the event of natural disasters and so forth that would impact on terrestrial networks.

"As a result, GSA expects to see more countries with satellite service offerings soon," he said.

'Soon' is a highly relative term. But if the buzz in the market is anything to go by, we shouldn't have to wait for too long.

About the Author(s)

Mary Lennighan

Mary has been following developments in the telecoms industry for more than 20 years. She is currently a freelance journalist, having stepped down as editor of Total Telecom in late 2017; her career history also includes three years at CIT Publications (now part of Telegeography) and a stint at Reuters. Mary's key area of focus is on the business of telecoms, looking at operator strategy and financial performance, as well as regulatory developments, spectrum allocation and the like. She holds a Bachelor's degree in modern languages and an MA in Italian language and literature.

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