EchoStar moves closer to global 5G satellite network

Satellite operator EchoStar announced it will start building a global network of 28 low-Earth orbit (LEO) satellites with vendor Astro Digital that will transmit signals in the company's S-band spectrum holdings. The network will initially support the LoRa protocol for Internet of Things (IoT) applications, but EchoStar said the move is part of a long-term goal to build "a global non-terrestrial 5G network."

"With support for 5G non-terrestrial network (NTN) services, the constellation will serve as a foundation for EchoStar to engineer 5G New Radio (NR) based NTN capabilities according to 3GPP release 17 specifications," according to EchoStar's announcement this week.

The financial analysts at Raymond James cheered the move. "We believe there is substantial value in EchoStar's S-band spectrum that is unrecognized," they wrote in a recent note to investors. "We feel this LEO network represents an encouraging step toward unlocking some of that value."

The analysts speculated that it will cost EchoStar between $100 million and $200 million to develop and launch the satellites over the next few years.

Spacial ambitions

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.

Working toward that goal, EchoStar late last year announced the launch of its LoRa network for customers in Europe.

"The network, operating in EchoStar Mobile's licensed S-band spectrum from the EchoStar XXI satellite, is the first to offer bi-directional, real-time LoRa-enabled connectivity across Europe using a single network," the company said in a press release.

That announcement dovetails with EchoStar's distribution deal with LEO satellite operator OneWeb, inked in 2021.

But those moves appear to be building blocks of EchoStar's broader strategy. For example, late last year EchoStar CEO Hamid Akhavan said the company is eying the burgeoning market for phone-to-satellite connections. "We are very focused on it," he said, without providing details.

This isn't the first time EchoStar executives have discussed connecting smartphones to satellites. Billionaire Charlie Ergen, who owns a majority of the voting shares in both EchoStar and Dish Network (a company building a terrestrial 5G network in the US), has repeatedly suggested some kind of future pairing between the two companies.

The regulatory angle

EchoStar's top policy executive, Jennifer Manner, offered a few more insights into the company's strategies during a Congressional hearing this week. She testified that EchoStar plans to deliver "3GPP services" at some point in the future.

"3GPP is the industry forum for developing technical specifications for 5G services, including through satellite. A number of MSS [mobile satellite service] operators have announced plans for direct-to-device and other innovative services," Manner said. "EchoStar itself, as a mobile satellite operator supporting LoRa IoT, in the very near future will deliver 3GPP services."

Manner argued that US regulators need to allocate more spectrum to satellite operators like EchoStar. She also said satellite operators themselves should be able to coordinate the usage of their fixed satellite service (FSS) spectrum with other satellite operators and with terrestrial operators.

It's no surprise Manner took that position, when EchoStar's partner company, Dish, is urging US spectrum regulators to allow both terrestrial and satellite operations in the 12GHz band.

If regulators develop new, progressive guidelines around satellite technology, Manner argued the US can remain competitive with other advanced countries like China.

"By taking the lead now, as satellite is being included in the 5G ecosystem, the US can be sure of continued leadership in the 6G Internet of the senses, where satellite networks will become even more critical," she told the House Energy and Commerce Committee Subcommittee on Communications and Technology.

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

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