European Space Agency, Industry Join Forces for 5G Satellite

Can you hear me now?

The European Space Agency met with industry leaders at the recent Paris Air Show to discuss not airplanes or space, but cell phones.

The meeting was held because the next generation of cellular networking, or 5G, which could be critical for autonomous technology and advanced communications in the coming decade.

“5G provides a major opportunity for our space industry, for space and satellites to become integral parts of the future generation of communications networks and services,” Magali Vaissiere, the ESA’s Director of Telecommunications and Integrated Applications, said in a statement. “[O]ur key industrial stakeholders are ready to join forces in response to this industrial ambition.”

The meeting, which included satellite operators, manufacturers, and telecommunications officials, is a critical step for the agency, which wants to get 5G trials underway in the next three years.

The ESA will hold a spacecom conference Tuesday in Brussels to discuss the work to be done call for industry partners to sign on by the end of the year.

The meeting is a big step forward for 5G in Europe, but what the next-generation of communication will actually do remains murky.

What is 5G Though?

The original “G” was born in the 1980s with the rollout of the first mobile networks. It was a big feat — but totally analog. In 1991, the second generation (2G) networks were launched and they were digital, marking a significant advance in the technology. Since the early 2000s, we’ve moved through two additional generations, 3G and 4G (and LTE) networking. But these more recent developments aren’t a change in the fundamentals of the technology so much as an increase in the speed of transmission.

While 5G’s future has yet to be determined, there’s congestion ahead. Essentially, wireless signals travel along waves. In the United States, the spectrum of waves is controlled by the Federal Communications Commission and auctioned off to cell providers, which is able to send information zipping across the part of the spectrum it’s leasing. Making these small parts of the spectrum more efficient is really difficult. Some providers want to use the higher-quality portion of the spectrum to move more information, but these signals are smaller, so it’s easier for users to totally lose the signal as they move around their house or city.

That’s why the ESA and others need manufacturers to pull their weight: A true 5G innovation will require a rapid advance of transmission technology. That way, we might actually be able to move information from one extremely fine point to another — and autonomous cars around the city. Otherwise, 5G will be just another clever marketing ploy aimed at those who will shell out for a slightly faster phone.

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