NTNs – a puff of hot air?

05 July 2024

NTNs are being embraced by the wireless community as a way of provisioning reliable, universal connectivity…

Non-Terrestrial Networks (NTN) are gaining traction globally. The southeast Asian region, however, is experiencing significant developments and is adopting such technologies to enhance connectivity and address the challenges posed by its diverse geography.

“Just a few years ago, you could still see telcos and MNOs on one side, and satellite operators on the other. The telco/MNO network and the satellite networks acted as distinct solutions,” says Gaurav Kharod, regional vice president, Asia Pacific, Intelsat. “That is changing now as satellite payloads become software-defined, and in line with the Software Defined WANs (SD-WAN) on the ground. This ongoing convergence of satellite and terrestrial technologies, supported by regulations, standards and use cases, will have a profound impact on the industry, bringing scale and reshaping hardware, waveform and software strategies.”

Moreover, “with the diverse and often challenging terrains in southeast Asia, terrestrial networks struggle to provide consistent coverage and connectivity, especially in remote areas. This is where NTN, especially satellite technology, can play a crucial role in bridging the digital divide and ensuring connectivity everywhere,” says Peng Zhao, vice president, policy & regulatory, GSOA.

With a growing focus on sustainability, southern Asia is focused on integrating NTN with green technologies to support sustainable development. Investments in NTN can support this transition by enabling more efficient energy management and reducing carbon footprints through better connectivity and data analytics.

“The integration of satellite technology with terrestrial networks can offer high-speed connectivity, enhance services, and connect urban as well as rural areas,” opines Zhao. “This convergence technologies not only benefits citizens but also contributes to the overall development and progress of the region.”

A network of networks

NTNs bring several advantages over traditional communications technologies, including extended coverage, disaster resilience, 5G integration, high mobility support, scalability/flexibility, support for IoT/M2M, enhanced security and privacy.

“Moreover, the collaboration between terrestrial and non-terrestrial networks fosters a network of networks approach, integrating different industries and technologies for enhanced innovation and connectivity,” shares Zhao. “This convergence not only boosts the performance of communication networks but also ensures a seamless integration of services, ultimately benefiting users worldwide. As NTN platforms continue to evolve and integrate with terrestrial networks, they offer a future of transformative connectivity solutions that cater to the needs of citizens, governments, and enterprises alike while addressing the challenges of traditional communication technologies.”

Partnerships between organisations like GSOA and the GSMA are advancing the adoption of NTN solutions globally. These collaborations explore innovative technologies that leverage the strengths of both satellite and mobile networks, unlocking new opportunities for consumers and enterprises.

“The inclusion of satellite and non-terrestrial networks (NTN) in 3GPP standards opens new growth markets for satellite operators including 5G, Direct-to-Device and IoT. This hybrid network will deliver ubiquitous coverage and bring universality values to customers,” confirms Kharod. “5G NTN standards are helping to create a more open marketplace in which satellite and mobile service providers can collaborate. It is an enormous opportunity for both MNOs and satellite players, as it becomes clear that no single technology alone is going to solve the problem of access and universal coverage both, along with bringing value to customers.”

“Overall, the current state of play in southeast Asia regarding NTN is characterised by active partnerships, regulatory discussions, and a focus on leveraging NTN to enhance connectivity and bridge the digital divide in the region,” adds Zhao.

Getting the wavelength right

On top of the usual challenges – technical, financial, regulatory, and socioeconomic – the expansion of NTNs is further complicated by spectrum, and requires a multifaceted approach that involves regulatory reforms, technological innovations, and regional cooperation.

“The increasing NTN adoption will require spectrum regulation coordination between satellite and mobile,” explains Kharod. “We work closely with regulators to ensure that NTNs are included in the universal service regulations, as well as with local telecoms operators.”

Indeed, “southern Asia can manage spectrum limitations as NTN adoption increases by prioritising regulatory certainty and spectrum allocation for satellite services. The protection of Fixed Satellite Service (FSS) and Mobile Satellite Service (MSS) spectrum is crucial for enabling NTN services,” says Zhao. “This entails ensuring that the satellite spectrum is supported by regulatory policies that promote collaboration between satellite network operators, mobile network operators, and policymakers.”

To achieve success in the smooth deployment of NTNs, Asian countries must develop unified spectrum policies and regulations. Harmonising spectrum allocation across the region can reduce interference and optimise the use of available frequencies. Indeed, in its ‘Southeast Asia’s Green Economy 2024’ paper, Bain reports that dynamic spectrum sharing policies would enable multiple users to access the same frequency bands without causing interference, maximising spectrum efficiency and supporting diverse applications. Likewise, S&P Global reports in ‘ASEAN Economic Outlook 2024’ that introducing flexible and adaptive licensing models such as secondary market trading and spectrum leasing can accommodate the evolving needs of NTNs.

Accordingly, regional cooperation and coordination are a must. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is expected to play a crucial role in fostering cooperation to streamline efforts in spectrum allocation and coordination. Since collaborative spectrum planning can ensure that resources are used efficiently and effectively, multilateral agreements on its use and management can address cross-border interference issues.

Zhao agrees that “it is essential for southern Asia to engage in discussions at international forums, such as the ITU and APT, to advocate for the allocation of spectrum for satellite services. By participating in these conversations, southern Asia can highlight the importance of satellite connectivity in bridging the digital divide and connecting underserved populations, but also industries like maritime, aviation, and mobility. Overall, southern Asia must focus on forming partnerships, implementing technology-neutral policies, and advocating for spectrum allocation to effectively manage spectrum limitations and facilitate the adoption of NTN in the region.”

The next big thing?

NTNs promise transformative benefits for southern Asia and indeed the world at large.

“NTN are poised to be the next big thing in wireless communications,” affirms Zhao. “The transformative power of NTN lies in their ability to bridge the digital divide, support a wide range of applications, and bring internet access to remote areas. The collaboration between terrestrial and NTNs has already brought significant benefits to citizens, connecting rural and remote areas.”

“We believe that the integration of NTN and cellular networks will be a game changer and we have been investing in innovations across 5G, software-defined networks, universal terminals,” agrees Kharod. “We expect satellite to become fully integrated within existing telco/MNO networks in a couple of years.”

Industry experts believe that NTNs are crucial for achieving global connectivity, especially in remote and underserved regions, where they are complementary to terrestrial networks, filling coverage gaps and providing redundancy in case of terrestrial network failures. While upfront costs are high, technological advancements are making NTNs more feasible and attractive for investment.