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UK to build satellite 5G research hub

The UK government is chipping in £3 million to help build a new lab that will research satellite-based 5G services.

It is being built by IT and business consultancy CGI at the Harwell Campus in Oxfordshire. As well as UK government backing, the facility is also supported by the European Space Agency (ESA). As part of the development, CGI is working with BT and Avanti Communications on a project to see how satellite 5G services could deliver affordable broadband to rural UK communities.

“Through our work with the European Space Agency and industry partners, including the development of our Carnot-Sat hybrid network planning tool, it became apparent that the ability to demonstrate the benefits of integrated 5G and satellite communications networks would help to accelerate the delivery of 5G in the UK and across Europe,” said Shaun Stretton, SVP for UK and Australia space control and information solutions at CGI, in a statement.

“This exciting facility will bring closer the potential benefits of satellite integration into 5G networks,” he said.

As we all know, work on the integration of non-terrestrial networks into the 5G standard is well underway at 3GPP under Release 17 (Rel-17). We’ve also all heard about the potential of satellites to deliver 5G in those hard-to-reach places and unlock new use cases, not just for basic comms services, but IoT as well.

Northern Sky Research in late October estimated that 5G will generate $32.5 billion for the global satellite communications industry through 2029. By then, the research firm expects that more than 10 million devices will connect to satellite-based 5G networks.

Presumably the hope for the UK’s new 5G Hub is that it will demonstrate – in practical terms – how to put the technology to use.

“ESA’s novel 5G Hub will showcase how space technology enables connectivity, partnering with industry to foster innovation in the realms of autonomous vehicles and smart cities, and to enable machines to exchange information with one another via the Internet of things,” said Elodie Viau, director of telecommunications and integrated applications at ESA.

“Adding satellites to existing terrestrial 5G infrastructure is essential to ensure a reliable and safe telecommunications network that supports such connectivity, which in turn promotes a seamless and more environmentally friendly experience. Investing in space improves life on Earth,” she said.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that it the lab has won financial backing from the UK government. After all, this is an administration that for some reason spent $500 million to rescue ailing satellite broadband provider OneWeb from bankruptcy.

At one point, it discussed the possibility of using OneWeb as the UK’s answer to GPS or the EU’s Galileo positioning system, until it became clear that OneWeb’s low-Earth orbit (LEO) satellites would not be very good at that.

Now, along with partner and majority shareholder Bharti Global, the UK needs to get some idea of how and when it might earn a return on that investment, and labs like this could offer one or two answers.

“This new state-of-the-art facility backed by government funding will enable our brightest researchers and engineers to better understand how 5G can help connect us all, creating new business opportunities, while delivering green efficiencies across the UK,” said Science minister Amanda Solloway.

The lab is due to open in 2021.

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