Lockheed Martin, Omnispace team for 5G from space

Lockheed Martin, a giant US defense contractor, announced a new "strategic interest agreement" with a startup called Omnispace that's working to build a satellite-based network that can beam Internet connections directly to 5G devices.

Although the companies said they're in the early stage of working on the project, executives from both companies indicated they're specifically targeting military applications for the offering.

The US Department of Defense (DoD) needs new communication technology and its "appetite never dulls," Lockheed Martin Space's executive vice president, Rick Ambrose, told CNBC.

To be clear, Lockheed Martin and Omnispace indicated their efforts could target a wide variety of sectors, ranging from "civil and commercial applications" to "defense, government and military use, including mobile joint all-domain interoperable communications."

But it's that second part that Lockheed Martin has been focused on. The company's new CEO hails from cell tower giant American Tower, and last year he laid out a strategy called "5G.mil." His long-term ambition is to connect up to three-quarters of all military vehicles to a 5G network backbone.

Perhaps more importantly, the Pentagon appears to be heading in a similar direction. Military commanders have been discussing the possibility of developing a wide-ranging communications system called JADC2 (Joint All-Domain Command and Control), and many top officials have said it will be based on 5G.

During an investor event late last year, Lockheed Martin CEO James Taiclet explained why the high speeds and low latency of 5G might be useful to Air Force pilots and others.

"If I'm flying an F-35, I don't want to have my data transmitter on nonstop because that makes me a target," he said during an investor event, according to a Seeking Alpha transcript. "But if I've got 5G on the airplane, in a second, I can get a gigabit of data that can then give me my next mission leg. And I turn that off, again, within that second, and I can fly safely."

"We share a common vision with Omnispace of a space-based 5G global network that would enable users to seamlessly transition between satellite and terrestrial networks – eliminating the need for multiple devices on multiple networks," explained Lockheed's Ambrose in a release. "Ultimately, it's about empowering end users with low latency connections that work anywhere. This step forward has the potential to upend space-based mobility."

Omnispace started in 2012 as a holding company for 2GHz S-band spectrum licenses purchased from the remnants of bankrupt satellite operator ICO Global. CEO Ram Viswanathan joined Omnispace in early 2016 in order to look at how the company might create a global network with the assets.

The company recently obtained $60 million in venture funding in pursuit of that goal. The company has said it is already conducting trials of its service with unnamed mobile network operators, and that the company hopes to launch commercial offerings as soon as 2023.

Omnispace isn't the only company looking at providing 5G from space. Startups Lynk and AST & Science's SpaceMobile are each racing to deploy satellite constellations capable of broadcasting 4G and 5G signals directly to users' existing phones through mobile network operators' existing spectrum holdings. Others, such as Inmarsat, have hinted at the possibility of leveraging the upcoming Release 17 version of the 5G standard to broadcast signals from their satellites directly to 5G devices through their L-band spectrum holdings.

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

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