skip to main content

What is Satellite 5G?

Find out about the latest cutting-edge communication technology

Earlier this year, SpaceX launched a low-Earth orbit (LEO) satellite that operates according to the 5G cellular standard—the same standard used by new smartphones. 5G satellite could have a big impact on people with smart homes and other smart devices, but there’s also a lot of technical jargon that gets thrown around that makes the benefits unclear.

We’ll take a closer look at how this tech is developing and what this could mean for you in the future.

What’s the difference between 5G and satellite internet?

5G is the fifth generation of cellphone technology standards issued in 2015 but deployed around 2019. These standards include new technologies, like a larger frequency spectrum and more powerful forms of multiplexing, and new requirements for metrics like download speeds, latency, and efficiency.

Is 5G home internet available in your neighborhood right now? Enter your zip code below to see if you can get high-speed wireless internet without waiting for someone to build an entire next-generation satellite network.

Both satellites and mobile phones communicate using radio waves, but these two technologies have mostly developed independently. Although both are forms of wireless communication, a geosynchronous (GSO) satellite orbiting tens of thousands of miles away has very different requirements from a phone that sits in your pocket.

This began to change with the deployment of LEO satellite constellations like Starlink and OneWeb, which orbit just a few hundred miles above our heads. That’s still a bit farther away than your average cell tower, but it’s close enough for these satellites to make use of powerful 5G technologies and integrate into terrestrial cellular networks.

So what exactly does 5G satellite do that the two technologies can’t do on their own? According to a report by the European Telecommunications Standards Institute, satellite 5G provides many key advantages, including:

  • Increasing internet access
  • Alleviating network congestion
  • Providing emergency backups
  • Connecting moving platforms
  • Delivering simultaneous broadcasts

These use cases will probably affect most of us in some way or another, but satellite 5G could have the biggest impact on those living in rural or remote areas.

Satellite 5G can increase internet access

The hype around 5G has been around for a few years, but if you don’t live in a major city, chances are you haven’t really been able to take advantage of it much. The higher frequency of 5G signals allows them to carry more data, but they also travel shorter distances and are more susceptible to interference. This means 5G generally requires a lot more cell towers and other expensive infrastructure, which is why 5G was initially rolled out only in densely populated cities.

5G holds a lot of potential for people living in rural areas, but as with many high-speed internet technologies, lack of infrastructure is a major hurdle. 5G satellites could allow broadband access and phone coverage in areas where building cell towers is difficult or impossible.

Satellite 5G could also be used with these wired or wireless connections to provide faster speeds and more reliable connections even in underserved areas with some internet infrastructure.

Satellite 5G can alleviate network congestion

Wired networks tend to be fairly robust with plenty of bandwidth to handle the normal ups and downs of online activity, but even these networks can be overwhelmed at times. If you’ve ever had Netflix start buffering when you’re relaxing after work or lost your phone signal when trying to find a friend at a crowded event, you know that even the most resilient networks can be overwhelmed with a sudden spike of activity.

5G satellite networks can serve as a wireless backhaul to alleviate some of the pressure on local subnetworks when they become overwhelmed. Since satellite 5G networks will be accessible almost everywhere, they’re always a backup plan if your normal network management techniques aren’t able to cope with unexpected traffic.

Satellite 5G can provide an emergency backup to terrestrial networks

For better or for worse, the internet has subsumed a lot of important functions that were previously handled by landline telephone, radio, or television. In the event that the internet goes out during a natural disaster like a flood, most people would be completely cut off from communication.

Satellite 5G networks would allow people access to the internet in such cases, allowing them to contact friends and family, find important news, and receive emergency alerts. This would also work in smaller-scale emergencies like power outages that could disrupt cell towers and optical line terminals.

These networks can also be crucial tools for public safety workers engaged in any sort of disaster relief. Both handheld and vehicle-mounted communication devices can utilize 5G connections, allowing for better coordination and faster response times.

Satellite 5G can connect moving platforms

These days, it’s not so strange to have Wi-Fi on a plane, a train, or a boat. LEO satellites have made these forms of mobile internet even better, reducing latency and increasing download speeds. 5G won’t necessarily be revolutionary in these settings, but it will improve upon the changes made by LEO satellite networks, increasing speeds and reducing outages caused by interference or overcrowding on the network.

Satellite 5G can deliver simultaneous live broadcast streams

Live communications are one of the most challenging online activities to perform in rural areas. This doesn’t just include live broadcasts like sporting events, but also video chat, livestreaming, and other forms of collaborative communication.

One of the biggest challenges for these activities in rural areas is latency. GSO satellites have much higher latency than any other type of internet connection due to their extreme distance from the earth. LEO satellites, like those used in satellite 5G, avoid this problem simply by being much closer.

Because 5G is an international standard, it makes interoperability between different networks and devices much smoother. 5G also favors software-based solutions to problems over hardware-based ones, which makes these systems even more flexible.

For large streaming services like Twitch or YouTubeTV, satellite 5G will be able to step in and carry some of the weight on the edges of networks to make sure that their product has the same quality in these areas as it does in more central regions.

The future of satellite 5G

There are a lot of benefits to satellite 5G that could impact our lives almost immediately, but standards like 5G also look toward the future. I still don’t see any hoverboards or flying cars in 2023, so take these predictions with a grain of salt, but here are some of the ways that satellite 5G companies claim the technology could impact our lives in the future.

The Internet of Things

5G satellite could have a major impact on smart devices that require an internet connection to function, often referred to as the Internet of Things (IoT). These smart devices can be as simple as a tracking device on a shipping container or as complicated as an unmanned aircraft. These more complex devices often need a constant, high-bandwidth connection to function properly, which is much easier to achieve with 5G technology

Satellite 5G could provide connectivity for remote sensors and other devices in a wide range of industries, from farming to gas pipelines to public safety. Although these sorts of smart devices for business applications have been around in some form for a few years, the biggest hurdle for adopting them is often lack of internet infrastructure. While you can move your office to someplace with a better internet connection, you can’t really relocate a farm or a mine to the middle of a city in the same way.

Direct-to-cell satellite services

Satellite phones have been around for a long time, but have mostly been limited to military and other extremely specialized uses. Even today, they’re prohibitively expensive and really not practical, unless you’re planning on backpacking across the Tibetan plateau or someplace equally remote.

The ability to use a normal cell phone to connect to a satellite is still science fiction for now. If direct-to-cell does become the norm in the future, it will be a pretty massive change to our entire communication infrastructure. Will we even have to build new cell towers? Will AT&T and T-Mobile start launching their own 5G satellites? I suppose only time will tell.

Smart cities

Sticking with our science fiction theme, smart cities have been floated as another potential application of 5G satellite technology. Just like your smart home uses your Wi-Fi network to keep all the gadgets in your house connected, smart cities could similarly use satellite 5G to optimize the way they run.

While there are certainly a lot of useful features a smart city would make possible, such as more efficient power grids, better traffic management, and more responsive city services, smart cities tend to show up a lot more in dystopian fiction than in more idealistic visions of the future. Smart cities bring up questions of ubiquitous surveillance, mandatory data collection, and centralization of local government power. 5G satellite coverage would certainly facilitate these sorts of uses just as easily as it does more benign ones.

Even if you’re not an early adopter who’s eager to get a text from the garbage truck about how much trash you had this week, this is definitely one potential technology you’ll want to keep your eye on. Tech companies and cities are already looking into these kinds of technologies, so we need to make sure they’re implemented with accountability and transparency.

Moon bases

Yes, real-life serious business people are indeed claiming that satellite 5G could have a huge impact on lunar infrastructure. Namely, that we could actually build lunar infrastructure. Because that’s not a thing yet.

I’m not going to speculate here about what a thriving moon base could look like, but a high degree of automation sounds like a pretty important feature in an environment with no atmosphere. And if you are going to have a bunch of robots roving about the lunar surface, putting some 5G satellites in orbit sounds a lot more practical than building a bunch of cell towers on the moon.

More resources

5G moon bases wasn’t enough for you? Fortunately, we’ve got a lot more resources for those who are interested in some of the more practical ways 5G could impact your life.

Author -

Peter Christiansen writes about satellite internet, rural connectivity, livestreaming, and parental controls for Peter holds a PhD in communication from the University of Utah and has been working in tech for over 15 years as a computer programmer, game developer, filmmaker, and writer. His writing has been praised by outlets like Wired, Digital Humanities Now, and the New Statesman.

Back to top