Brian Barritt, Meta Connectivity Engineering Manager, Answers 10 Questions on Non-Terrestrial Networks
1. Tell us a little about your work at Meta.
I lead a group of engineers for Meta Connectivity — formerly Facebook — a team dedicated to connecting more people to the internet to bring the world closer together. We work with partners to develop innovative technologies that help solve some of the world’s biggest connectivity challenges.
There’s no single technology that can solve the world’s connectivity challenges and bring everyone online. Population density is a key factor. The number of people per km2 on Earth is nonuniform and varies about five or six orders of magnitude — in a clumpy distribution. When one raises the altitude of a wireless transceiver, from Wi-Fi on your tabletop, to the height of a cell tower, to the height of an aircraft, and on to LEO, MEO, and GEO, they’re usually trading the total coverage area for the population density of users that the technology can support.
I’m particularly interested in the work we’re doing with satellite operators. The industry can’t solve rural connectivity without satellites, but we have to bring the costs down. Satellite terminals and phones are expensive, and so are many of the specialized components used in the equipment. One reason for this is that the network protocols and modem chipsets used by the satellite industry are unique and not found in any other industry. Also, the backend software that tasks the ground- and space-segment beams, manages the radio resources, and figures out how to route the traffic in a satellite constellation is usually bespoke and built from scratch for each satellite operator – at great expense. These factors contribute to the costs that satellite operators and their investors must recover through revenues from service subscribers. And that challenge is compounded by the fact that incomes are often lower in rural, emerging markets.
For our part, we’re focused on working with satellite operators to use technologies such as our Express Wi-Fi platform to address broadband gaps in rural communities. Express Wi-Fi is now used by partners in more than 30 countries, enabling millions of people to connect to fast, affordable, and reliable Wi-Fi every month.
2. What excites you most about the potential for mobile users to benefit from advances in space right now?
Mobile phone users have heard the hype around 5G, but most people don’t realize that there are future versions of 5G that are still under development. Work on 5G Release 17, which is scheduled to complete next summer, will evolve the 5G waveforms and protocols to make them suitable for use natively onboard satellites and for space-to-ground links in satellite constellations. If a vendor ecosystem emerges and satellite operators adopt 5G non-terrestrial networks (NTN) technology at scale, it could dramatically reduce the total cost of ownership for satellite internet. It could also enable direct-to-handset satellite connectivity to future versions of 5G mobile phones. We’re already seeing major investments in satellite constellation projects around this concept, like AST SpaceMobile.
3. How is Meta Connectivity’s work in non-terrestrial networks advancing connectivity on Earth?
The 5G NTN ecosystem promises to connect more people here on Earth, and we’re really excited about supporting this ecosystem. Meanwhile, there are Meta Connectivity projects that are synergistic and have related benefits to satellite operators — like our Express Wi-Fi platform I mentioned earlier, and our support for open-source cellular infrastructure. For example, we developed Magma, an open-source network core — the backend and brain of a cellular network. We’re working with several satellite operators that have adopted Magma to deploy their own cellular networks in rural areas — backhauled via satellite.
4. How is Meta Connectivity helping to ramp up and accelerate 5G NTN design, construction, and market adoption?
Meta Connectivity is supporting the emergence of the 5G NTN vendor and open-source ecosystem through our membership in the Telecom Infra Project (TIP). TIP is a global community of hundreds of companies and organizations that work together to accelerate the development and deployment of open, interoperable, disaggregated, and standards-based solutions. We worked closely with TIP to establish a Non-Terrestrial Connectivity Solutions project group, and we’re helping to lead the effort alongside other industry-leading organizations like SES Networks, Inmarsat, the European Space Agency, and the High-Altitude Platform Station Alliance.
5. How do you think 5G NTN utilization of space and space-based technologies will change over the next 10 years?
It remains to be seen! The 5G NTN ecosystem is still nascent, and its widespread adoption remains uncertain. If it is widely adopted, I think that in 10 years, most of our mobile phones will be asking us if we want to pay an additional roaming charge to send an email, text, or place a call over satellite whenever we’re in the most rural of areas.
6. What types of business partners do 5G NTN leaders need to succeed in space?
Well, one obvious type of partner is a vendor of ground segment equipment. In a 5G NTN architecture, the satellite constellation’s ground stations (aka gateways or teleports) are parabolic antennas connected to 5G Release 17 capable gNodeBs. We’re hoping for traditional and non-traditional vendors to enter that space. We’ll also need vendors of payload equipment. But perhaps the most greenfield areas are the network core and radio intelligence controllers. We’re hoping that satellite operators can eventually start buying platforms from business partners and adding their own innovations as “apps” on top instead of building everything from scratch — especially for non-geostationary constellations. We’re envisioning vendor and open-source solutions that combine the new, disaggregated software interfaces from 5G service management and orchestration with the Temporospatial Software Defined Networking (TS-SDN) innovations recently employed in non-terrestrial networks at Alphabet.
7. What are the characteristics of a successful employee in this emerging market? What new jobs are you creating or anticipating for 5G NTN to need to create in space and near-space?
I think the industry is really looking for people well-versed in modern software engineering best practices with domain experience in cellular networks and aerospace. The success of 5G NTN hinges not on advances in physics or RF but on software, so software skills are paramount. The most successful software engineers will be the ones capable of bridging nuanced engineering cultural and terminology differences across these two domains.
8. Are there terrestrial advantages for connectivity on Earth that won’t translate successfully into space? Aside from the obvious, are there barriers to connectivity on Earth that won’t be barriers to 5G NTN success in space?
Size, weight, power, and cost constraints motivate keeping as much of the 5G NTN network functions on the ground as possible. As cellular industry moves toward a more open and disaggregated 5G architecture, there are a few assumptions around the latency of an interface (like a radio fronthaul) or the geographic scope of a function (like a near-real-time radio intelligence controller) that won’t exactly translate successfully in 5G NTN.
One advantage for cellular connectivity from non-terrestrial platforms is that the wireless signals can propagate farther than many people realize. In my past experience on Loon, I often encountered cellular industry veterans who were surprised that high-altitude platforms could maintain 4G LTE links directly from existing handsets from 20+ km away in the stratosphere. Narrow-band connections can also be maintained between handsets and satellites across even farther distances. This isn’t intuitive to terrestrial network operators, who are accustomed to signals not propagating nearly as far due to the urban structures, foliage, and terrain along their signal paths.
9. How will 5G NTN stakeholders’ participation in ASCEND accelerate their growth in space?
Realizing the potential of 5G non-terrestrial connectivity requires the emergence of a new vendor and open-source software ecosystem. We’re participating in ASCEND to solicit participation and raise awareness across the event’s cross-functional audience of engineers, scientists, policymakers, investors, civil and government leaders, national-security experts, researchers, and media.
10. On a personal note, what is the one thing that has made you successful in your career that might be instructive to others?
I’ve always been fascinated by space systems and wireless networks, and I’ve found that an innate fascination is the best motivation when learning a new technical subject. My advice is to seek out the intersection of those interests, your strengths, and the potential for real-world impact.
I’ve found that the cross-pollination of innovation and trends across industries also brings a potential for outsized impact. For example, my experience on projects like Loon and satellite constellations helped me to recognize an opportunity to leverage the investments, innovation, and scale of the terrestrial mobile ecosystem when I joined a cellular technology team at Meta Connectivity.
About Brian Barritt
Brian Barritt is Engineering Manager at @Meta Connectivity specializing in networks spanning land, air, and space. Facebook changed its name to Meta on 28 October, 2021.