Satellites may be the secret ingredient to Charlie Ergen’s 5G recipe
Billionaire Charlie Ergen owns a majority of the voting shares of both EchoStar and Dish Network. One company is working to deliver 5G in the US via a network of cell towers on the ground. The other is working to deliver 5G globally via a network of satellites in space.
Together, the two companies own substantial spectrum licenses covering most of the world and could, theoretically, provide seamless terrestrial and satellite connectivity around the globe.
This grand vision is years away from becoming a reality. And it’s far from a certainty; there are plenty of moving pieces that still need to fall into place before Ergen can even attempt to begin offering commercial 5G services on a wide scale. Moreover, Ergen has been promising to offer some kind of satellite/terrestrial hybrid wireless network for the better part of a decade, with little to show for it.
“These broadband services will be offered over a single, technically integrated network for all satellite and terrestrial traffic. The offerings could consist of mobile, portable or fixed broadband services individually or a combination thereof,” Dish told the FCC in 2011 of its plan to build a 4G LTE network with ground- and space-based elements.
Ergen is certainly closer to realizing this basic vision today than at any point in his long career in the cellular industry. And he’s not the only billionaire eyeing the convergence of satellite- and ground-based networks.
Third time’s the charm
Ergen’s EchoStar – spun out from Dish Network in 2008 – is one of a handful of aging satellite companies hoping for a second wind from 5G. Along with Iridium, Globalstar and others, EchoStar owns valuable S-band spectrum licenses in the 2GHz range that could be integrated into terrestrial 5G networks.
“Where we think the real legs are here is, as 5G emerges and the standards being formulated right now in 3GPP, are for the first time ever incorporating satellites into an integrated network,” explained Anders Johnson, EchoStar’s chief strategy officer and president of EchoStar Satellite Services. “We’ve been focused on that now for the past five years.”
The 3GPP – the wireless industry’s main standards-setting association – is currently working on the next batch of 5G technologies, dubbed Release 17. Among other things, Release 17 promises to optimize 5G over non-terrestrial networks (NTN) such as satellite networks. The group hopes to finalize those standards in 2022.
The S-band spectrum owned by companies like EchoStar is viewed as a prime candidate for this effort; indeed, the 3GPP has already incorporated the S-band into its specifications as Band 40.
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