Why combine terrestrial and satellite communications?

Darwin’s ubiquitous communications technology makes it possible to switch in an instant between 5G and satellite communications. Why is this important? In this post, we explore some of the reasons it’s worth supplementing 5G communications with satellite networks.

Reducing the number of masts required

5G can use high frequencies to transmit vast quantities of data and accommodate many devices simultaneously. However, high-frequency waves can struggle to travel long distances.

4G signals can travel about sixteen kilometres, or ten miles. 5G’s range is shorter: about 300 metres, or 0.2 miles. This means that many more 5G masts are required to provide coverage to the same area.

In cities, 5G masts may fit comfortably into their setting. In areas of natural beauty, though, there’s a cost to the landscape that needs to be considered. When you’re wandering the moors, you want to be able to call for help if you get lost, but you don’t necessarily want to come across a phone mast every few minutes. Is there another solution?

This is where satellite communications come in. As satellites are in orbit, they can connect people on Earth without impacting on the landscape at ground level. This means that rural areas don’t necessarily need large numbers of masts in order to benefit from connectivity.

By reducing the number of masts we need to connect the world, we can also save money. There are material, labour and upkeep costs involved for every 5G mast built. Of course, there are also costs involved in building satellites, launching them into space and maintaining their orbit, but fewer satellites than 5G masts are required to provide coverage over a wide area.

Wider coverage

With the expenses and time involved in building 5G masts, it would take a long time to bring 5G to everyone. However, people in rural or isolated areas should still be able to enjoy the benefits of connectivity.

A strong connection can also be valuable even in places that aren’t technically inhabited. If someone becomes lost on a moor or mountain, they would ideally be able to connect to a communications network in order to access a map or call for help.

Satellites, which can be contacted from anywhere with a clear line of sight to the sky, can provide that connectivity when terrestrial networks aren’t available. By enabling devices to switch between terrestrial and satellite networks, we can make it possible to connect to the internet or communicate with other devices from almost anywhere.

Staying connected on the move

Darwin’s ubiquitous communications solution can switch seamlessly from 5G to satellite, or vice versa, as soon as one type of connection becomes unavailable. This makes it possible to stay connected in a moving vehicle without service interruptions.

Staying connected while travelling has many uses. It’s important for autonomous vehicles, but it could also benefit human drivers. For example, if you’re a passenger in a car, the driver may ask you to look up traffic information on your smartphone so they can take the most efficient route. In areas with patchy terrestrial coverage, this isn’t always possible. If you could switch in an instant between mobile and satellite broadband, you would be able to check the traffic situation even in areas without phone masts.

A steady, reliable connection while travelling could also make it possible to run on-demand public transport in areas where a regular bus service wouldn’t recoup its costs. People could request transport to a particular place, and the driver could change the service’s route to pick up passengers going in the same direction. The service would essentially function as a multi-person taxi, taking travellers to a common destination.

For more about the value of staying connected on the move, take a look at our main page on ubiquitous communications.

What are the problems that remain once you’ve combined 5G and satellite communications?

5G and satellite are a potent combination. 5G technology is extremely fast, without the latency created by the large distances between Earth and orbiting satellites. Satellite signals, meanwhile, can reach rural areas without the infrastructure to support 5G.

In other words, 5G offers high speeds, whereas satellites offer wide coverage. Are there areas that the combination can’t reach, though?

Both 5G and satellite technology are best suited for outdoor use. High-frequency 5G signals, and signals that have travelled a long distance from a satellite, can be weakened or blocked entirely by obstacles such as walls.

Because of this, a blend of 5G and satellite technology is great for autonomous vehicles, or for other technologies that are primarily used outdoors. However, if you have a device that also sees a lot of use indoors, such as a mobile phone, you may sometimes need to connect to a 4G network to get a good signal. Mobile providers such as O2 are aware of this issue, so they’re still investing in 4G, rather than focusing solely on 5G at the cost of indoor coverage.

Different types of network have different strengths, so it makes sense to use them for different purposes. If devices are able to switch freely between 4G, 5G and satellite networks, they’ll be able to use the best tool available at any given moment.

Darwin Innovation Group is a UK-based company that provides services related to autonomous vehicles and communications. If you’re interested in working with us, take a look at our careers page. If you’d like to know how we can help your organisation make use of autonomous vehicles, contact us. You can also follow us on LinkedIn or Twitter.

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