Non-Terrestrial Networks in 6G | Fraunhofer IIS

Non-Terrestrial Networks will be an integral part of 6G to provide global connectivity with seamless coverage. The initial introduction of NTN in the 5G system is an important step for the establishment of a global standard for integrated scenarios with terrestrial and Non-Terrestrial networks. However, a much more flexible approach to integrate dynamic network elements such as UAVs, (V)LEO satellites and small satellites is required compared to NTN in 5G.

In recent years, the connectivity demand in wireless communication has increased towards connection everywhere and anytime. This is a challenging situation for terrestrial telecommunications infrastructure providers that they cannot fulfill on their own. Therefore, the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) standardization organization started to study the integration of satellites as an integral part of the 5G ecosystem involving both cellular and satellite stakeholders in 2017s. The added value by satellites as part of the access technology mix for 5G is becoming clear, especially for mission-critical and other applications where ubiquitous coverage is crucial. Non-terrestrial networks (NTN) can broaden service delivery to unserved or underserved areas by complementing and extending terrestrial networks. In this article, we will elaborate on the current standardization of NTN in 5G and further detail the architecture and research challenges toward 6G-NTN.

Are Non-Terrestrial Networks already part of 5G?

The satellite direct access with 5G has been accepted to the roadmap in the cellular standardization organization 3GPP. The use of satellite-based networks to provide connections to users is also referred to as 5G-NTN (Non-Terrestrial Networks) in the 3GPP community. These so-called non-terrestrial networks cover satellites as well as airborne vehicles, also called High Altitude Platforms (HAPs). From an architectural point of view, satellites either act as backhaul for base stations on the ground or provide direct 5G satellite access to end-user equipment. The satellite employs either a transparent (bent pipe) payload or, in the future, 3GPP releases a regenerative payload (potentially carrying a 5G base station) and can be placed into Geostationary Earth orbit (GEO), Medium-Earth Orbit (MEO), or Low-Earth Orbit (LEO). The airborne vehicles are Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) operating at a height between 8 and 50 km. A transparent satellite works as a relay between the UEs and the 5G base station on the gateway side of the ground. In contrast, a regenerative satellite acts as a flying gNB, with a backhaul link to the 5G core network on the ground. 

After two study items, the 3GPP Radio Access Network (RAN) working group specified the extension of 5G New Radio to support Non-Terrestrial Networks as part of Release 17 with contributions from Fraunhofer IIS. The specifications cover a frequency range from two to 30 GHz and GEO, MEO, and LEO satellite constellations with implicit compatibility with HAPs. Two terminal types for direct access to satellites are considered, either smartphone type or Very Small Aperture Terminals (VSAT) with directional antennas (cf. Figure 1). To complement the 5G New Radio broadband standard for satellites, 3GPP specified the adaptations of the LTE-based technologies NB-IoT and eMTC to support low data rate use cases with direct access to satellites.

5G NR direct access to satellites by VSAT terminals and handheld devices (Source: Fraunhofer IIS) Update picture

For the first time, satellite communication with direct access is supported by the formerly terrestrial-only 3GPP standard. The satellite industry is gaining more and more interest in this initial standard, and the goal is to deploy non-terrestrial networks as part of 5G from approximately 2025 in order to meet the challenges of mobile network operators in terms of reachability, availability, and resiliency. At Fraunhofer IIS, we pay particular attention to enabling early technology evaluations of the new 5G-NTN standard, based on extensions of the open source software OpenAirInterface, e.g., in projects like ESA 5G-GOA, 5G-LEO and with Kymeta/Intelsat.

What are the Technology Developments of Telecom Satellites enabling 6G?

Telecom satellites have constantly evolved over the years, and further innovations are highly beneficial for 6G networks. GEO satellites improved the total system throughput over the past years with the introduction of high throughput satellites (HTS) and even very high throughput satellites (VHTS). This new class of satellites achieves total throughputs of more than 100 Gbit/s in the case of HTS and more than 1 Tbit/s in the case of VHTS per satellite, thanks to transparent digital processing payloads and flexible antenna technology.  Another innovation is LEO constellations, which have been already deployed in the 1990s with Iridium and Globalstar as one of the first companies with the vision of worldwide coverage. 

The Starlink constellation by SpaceX already has more than 1000 satellites in place and is planning to increase the number to up to 12,000. Such quantities give room for a cost-efficient mass production of these satellites, including application-specific components. Further, using LEO constellations, the latency of satellite systems could be improved dramatically compared to a GEO solution, down to 20 ms. Unfortunately, Starlink is not designed for 5G direct access, but we see the need for new constellations to be ready for 5G-Advanced and 6G direct access.

In addition to the GEO and LEO satellite improvements, other types of orbits might be envisioned for future networks, such as MEO, highly elliptical orbit (HEO), and very low earth orbit (VLEO) below 500 km to reach even lower latency below 20 ms. Nevertheless, this orbit suffers from higher atmospheric pressure, leading to velocity degradation and, in consequence, altitude degradation if no thrusters are used. 

Independent of the orbit, most of the innovations are based on the evolution of the payload in combination with the antenna. Satellite payloads are increasingly equipped with flexible onboard processors (OBPs) for software-defined payloads enabling future networks, like the “Iridium Next” satellite generation. For GEO satellites with high bandwidth and throughput, the processing is mostly based on a transparent basis, called digital transparent OBP, for channelization without onboard re-encoding of the data stream, e.g., for beam adjustments or routing decisions. LEO payloads can be assumed as an integral part of the network, enabling processing of lower layer (e.g. a 5G gNB distributed unit), higher layer (e.g., entire gNB), and network functions (e.g., edge computing) of 5G and 6G networks. A more complex type of OBP with more processing capability is needed to perform signal regeneration in addition to routing decisions. For LEO, the problem of optimized routing between different satellites using the inter-satellite links (ISLs) needs to be solved. The Fraunhofer On-Board Processer (FOBP) is an example of such a software-defined payload and enables bidirectional broadband communication with different wireless transmission standards in Ka-Band frequency.

(optionally: picture of Fraunhofer On-Board Processor)

Improvements in satellite antennas support analog or digital beamforming, e.g., with phased array antennas, and have been successfully deployed in orbit to support coverage planning similar to cellular networks. Other technologies have experienced a constant evolution, e.g., beam switching/beam hopping. Especially beam hopping is necessary to mitigate the limitation of the available power per beam and to scale capacity to different beams/regions. In both terrestrial and space domains, more flexibility, thanks to more available processing, is the key, thus, we expect this evolution to continue. 

CubeSat satellites represent a new class of nanosatellites with a mass between up to 10 kg and standardized dimensions in the shape of a cube with the smallest version 1U of 11 cm × 10 cm × 10 cm. The electrical power of nanosatellites is in the range of a few multiples of 10 W for the whole satellite with payload, satellite management, communication and control. So, the link budget for wireless communication is difficult to close at all or only with very low spectral efficiency, which is not suitable for enhanced mobile broadband (eMBB) type of applications with 5G, but with a high potential for massive machine type communications (mMTC) like IoT-NTN technologies. 

How will Non-Terrestrial Networks be integrated in 6G?

In 6G, an evolution towards a more heterogeneous network infrastructure is expected, with an increasing integration level of various height layers located on the ground and at air and space levels. A major increase in integration is expected between terrestrial and non-terrestrial networks, with unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and LEO satellites playing a major role in extending coverage and offloading traffic. Additionally, the evolution of Micro- and Nano-satellites is beneficial for massive IoT use cases in 6G. NTN can easily solve coverage problems, and thus a truly global connectivity can be realized.

In general, three different altitude layers of network platforms can be assumed – ground-based platforms, airborne platforms, and spaceborne platforms:

Figure: 3D architecture of 6G networks (Source: Fraunhofer IIS) Update picture

Further, the 6G ground-based platforms will be extended by moving base stations (buses, trucks, trains, etc.), providing connectivity either directly or via integrated access and backhaul or relaying to other users. In the airborne layer, we expect to see a huge number of different platforms, e.g., Drones for delivery services, HAPs, Airplanes, Air Taxis, and autonomous UAVs. At the space level, a huge variety of different platforms could be envisioned, starting with the more familiar GEO and LEO satellites but also MEO, HEO, or VLEO. In addition to the heterogeneity, higher dynamics will be added to the network, introduced by the motion of the different network elements, requiring an ad-hoc integration of new platforms, e.g., for a limited time only. 

This flexible, heterogeneous, and dynamic 6G network architecture, including airborne and spaceborne platforms, imposes several research challenges like spectrum and interference coordination and flexibility of the 6G radio access, demanding optimizations with AI due to the increasing complexity. The 6G-SKY consortium, including Fraunhofer IIS, addresses the heterogeneous and dynamic 6G architecture with terrestrial airbourne and spacebourne network nodes.

What are the further Research Challenges towards 6G-NTN?

Coexistence and spectrum sharing are another challenge in future 6G network architectures. The coexistence of LTE/NR networks or NB-IoT/eMBB devices are examples of scenarios where spectrum-sharing techniques have been addressed by 3GPP. Nonetheless, this has not yet included NTN. Since the LEO mega-constellations are poised to operate in the same band as incumbent GEO operators, spectrum reuse and interference avoidance have been explored within the satellite community. However, the solutions so far have been restricted to more traditional methods of issuing primary and secondary licenses and do not incorporate dynamic spectrum-sharing methodologies for coexistence in 6G networks. The ITU and other national regulatory bodies play in this area, and during the next World Radio Conference in 2023, there are several frequency bands that have been identified for compatibility studies and sharing on a co-primary or secondary basis, some of them including NTN. 

Despite this, several unlicensed frequency bands allow different users to access the spectrum on an opportunistic basis. For several CubeSat missions and IoT accesses in NTN, these unlicensed spectrum bands can be beneficial. Further analysis of efficient and fair spectrum sharing in unlicensed bands is necessary specifically for 6G NTN waveforms.

Energy efficiency will play an important role in 6G. Despite the benefits of the overall power consumption of a terrestrial cellular network and power-efficient end devices like IoT, energy-efficient waveforms are relevant for satellites as well. Satellite systems are sensitive to the Peak-to-Average-Power Ratio of a transmission waveform because they are power-limited and need to operate as close as possible to the maximum output power. Especially, the 5G downlink is not optimized for energy efficiency, and an optimized waveform to support an efficient transmission of 6G over satellites would be beneficial.

Scalability of the RF carrier bandwidth is another crucial point to enable various deployments of the wireless access technology in NTN, which suffer from the available frequency bands and especially the limited transmission power of satellites. So, the increasing bandwidth of the cellular standard generations limits the usability of 5G-NTN for certain frequency bands and types of satellites. As an example, using 6G for CubeSats needs flexible waveforms with lower minimum bandwidth than in 5G.

Summary and Outlook

Like any generation of mobile communications, the 5G-NTN technology will undergo continuous development and gain significant relevance for industry in the coming years towards 6G. Non-Terrestrial Networks will be an integral part of 6G to provide global connectivity with seamless coverage. The initial introduction of NTN in the 5G system is an important step for the establishment of a global standard for integrated scenarios with terrestrial and Non-Terrestrial networks. However, a much more flexible approach to integrating dynamic network elements such as UAVs, (V)LEO satellites, and small satellites is required compared to NTN in 5G. Satellite technology innovations like on-board processing will enable an extended integration in 6G and have to be considered in the initial phase of 6G studies. Introducing flexibility in the 6G core network and the radio access network is quite important to support different NTN deployment scenarios, Non-Terrestrial network elements as well as coexistence scenarios with spectrum sharing. 

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