Satellites may be the secret ingredient to Charlie Ergen's 5G recipe

Billionaire Charlie Ergen is the majority shareholder of two companies with far-reaching 5G ambitions. Will they combine forces and bring 5G to the world?

Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies

June 22, 2021

7 Min Read
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.

"That's going to recast what satellite's role is, because we're going to have certain things that would be capable of failing over to a satellite if the coverage was unavailable in a given geographic area," said EchoStar's Johnson. "But we're also going to have the ability to extend the coverage of certain things on the new 5G network [with satellites] to include the rest of the world, which is really the goal."

Thus, future 5G globetrotters might roam between terrestrial and satellite networks as needed, never losing a signal, according to Johnson.

EchoStar's pursuit of S-band spectrum licenses on the international stage largely dovetails with Dish Network's pursuit of spectrum licenses domestically. In 2013, EchoStar purchased Solaris Mobile for its S-band licenses that cover much of Europe. Then, in 2019, EchoStar purchased Helios Wire for $26 million, giving it access to the S-band spectrum covering much of the rest of the world.

The only catch? The company needs to launch a satellite before August 10 in order to retain the Helios Wire S-band spectrum licenses on file with the International Telecommunication Union (ITU). EchoStar's previous two attempts at getting a satellite into orbit suffered post-launch propulsion system failures, according to SpaceNews.

"Hopefully the third time's the charm," Johnson said. EchoStar's third launch is scheduled for Friday.

American coverage

If the company's third launch is successful, EchoStar will own S-band licenses across most of the world – except in a few locations, including the US.

That's where Dish comes in.

In 2011, Ergen's Dish acquired two failing satellite companies – TerreStar and DBSD – out of bankruptcy, paying around $1.4 billion for each company. Those companies owned S-band spectrum licenses for satellite communications in the US. The licenses also included an Ancillary Terrestrial Component (ATC) stipulation, initially intended by the FCC to allow satellite operators to augment their services with terrestrial facilities.

But Dish saw an opportunity to essentially reverse that ATC stipulation by making the terrestrial component the primary focus.

"Future releases of LTE Advanced are expected to utilize advanced interference management technology to enable a device to communicate with multiple base stations at the same time. This would allow users to seamlessly transition through these topologically complex wireless networks and therefore facilitate optimal integration with MSS [mobile satellite service]," Dish wrote in 2011. "In short, this innovative technology will allow Dish's initial deployment to use the most advanced, spectrally efficient technology, and generate significant public interest benefits."

With hopes that Dish would spur innovation in the emerging 4G industry, the FCC agreed in 2012 to modify the parameters of Dish's S-band licenses to allow the company to operate a full-blown mobile broadband network, using regular cell towers on the ground, in addition to a satellite network. In doing so, the FCC created a new spectrum band for LTE services, dubbed the AWS-4 band. In 3GPP parlance, that's Band 70.

AWS-4 is one of the handfuls of spectrum bands that Dish plans to use for its nationwide, terrestrial 5G network. The company's first market, Las Vegas, is scheduled to go live in the third quarter.

But, according to Johnson, Dish's original S-band licenses still also support satellite communication capabilities. He said Dish currently operates two satellites to conduct S-band communications in the US.

"I borrow them," Johnson said of Dish's satellites, explaining that EchoStar sometimes conducts S-band tests in the US using Dish's satellites. "And they are conducting their own tests," he said of Dish and its S-band satellites.

Time for ubiquitous 5G

"The timing of all of this, I can't say was planned, but it's certainly opportunistic," Johnson said. He pointed to the expected release of 3GPP specifications supporting 5G over satellites, as well as Dish's pending launch of its first 5G market, coupled with EchoStar's plans for Helios Wire's S-band licenses.

Johnson said EchoStar has been having conversations with unnamed partners about the potential for global 5G services from its satellites working in its S-band spectrum, but "I can't go into those discussions."

Indeed, EchoStar's Hughes Network Systems recently unveiled a hybrid terminal for its European customers that automatically switches to S-band satellite services when moving out of terrestrial cellular coverage areas.

EchoStar is not alone in chasing the intersection of 5G and satellites. Startups ranging from Swarm to Sateliot to Omnispace to OQ Technology are all looking to use elements of 5G in their satellite networks. And then of course there's SpaceX (backed by Tesla billionaire Elon Musk) and Project Kuiper (backed by Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos) that are also entering the satellite space.

Other startups like Lynk and AST SpaceMobile are hoping to conduct their satellite transmissions inside of 5G operators' existing, terrestrial spectrum holdings. Some of those services could be available as early as next year.

And like EchoStar, satellite heavyweights like Iridium and Inmarsat are also interested in how their existing spectrum licenses might be used in future 5G networks. "Release 17 could allow satellite connectivity to future 5G phones, albeit not at speeds people associate with 5G," Inmarsat said in response to questions from Light Reading on the topic.

So are there any firm deals between EchoStar and Dish for global, ubiquitous 5G coverage? Not yet, according to Johnson. "The two companies are separate and distinct," he said, explaining that deals between the two companies must run through a special process to avoid conflicts of interest.

But Dish and EchoStar "uniquely have this in their quiver," Johnson said of the companies' spectrum holdings and interest in 5G. "It's only a question of time until people realize they need the satellite stuff to really achieve its potential."

A Dish representative did not respond to questions on the topic from Light Reading.

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Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading | @mikeddano

About the Author(s)

Mike Dano

Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading

Mike Dano is Light Reading's Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies. Mike can be reached at [email protected], @mikeddano or on LinkedIn.

Based in Denver, Mike has covered the wireless industry as a journalist for almost two decades, first at RCR Wireless News and then at FierceWireless and recalls once writing a story about the transition from black and white to color screens on cell phones.

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