How Space will Shape the Next Decade of Automotive Connectivity

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The ability to update a vehicle’s software and access cloud data is revolutionising the automotive industry. As software defined vehicles (SDV) redefine driving, ubiquitous vehicle connectivity has become a necessity, delivering access to those strong, reliable network connections that SDV architecture relies upon. 

As traditional auto manufacturers now compete with newer, software-led OEMs to harness valuable vehicle data in real-time, the quality of their network connectivity is what will ensure improved vehicle performance, deliver an enhanced experience, and ultimately win them customers.  

Why Satellite-based Non-Terrestrial Network (NTN) has such a key role

While automotive connectivity at present relies mainly on terrestrial networks (TN), NTN technology is set to play a pivotal role in the next decade. This is primarily due to NTN’s breadth of coverage globally and its ability to reach those areas terrestrial networks cannot.

"NTNs will be able to provide more resilient vehicle connectivity as well as redundancy in emergency situations because they are less susceptible to physical disruptions like natural disasters and structural damage. This will improve the end-user vehicle experience with capabilities around emergency messaging, remote access, vehicle diagnostics, and entertainment.’’

Terrestrial networks (TNs) are traditional ground-based communication networks. They consist of infrastructure like cell towers, fiber optic cables, and other land-based technologies that provide connectivity services. 

Key examples of TNs include 4G and 5G cellular networks, cable broadband, and fibre optic internet. TNs are a great connectivity option in heavily populated areas, but are limited by physical geography and can be less reliable in remote and rural locations. 

Non-terrestrial networks (NTNs) use space-based or airborne platforms to provide widespread communication services. 

Early NTN satellites were first launched in the 2010s and now include:

  • Geostationary Earth Orbiting (GEO)
  • Medium Earth Orbiting (MEO)
  • Low Earth Orbiting (LEO)
  • High-altitude platforms (HAPs) and
  • Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) like drones

With NTNs expected to continue gaining traction, they will play a major role in the
future of global automotive connectivity. Further benefits of NTN connectivity include:

  • It is easily scalable. NTN can provide new coverage without the need for costly ground infrastructure to be laid first, leading to lower overall infrastructure maintenance and deployment costs over large areas.
  • It can enable vehicle communication with emergency services from any location. This will improve emergency response times and outcomes in the event of a collision or mechanical breakdown.

Non-Terrestrial Network connectivity: GEO and LEO satellites

Over the next decade, two main types of satellites will play a crucial role in modern networks. Though they differ in their altitudes, orbital periods, coverage areas, and latencies, both will be important in enabling automakers to gather and act on real-time vehicle data.  

Geostationary Earth Orbit satellites circle the Earth at the exact same rotation rate as the planet, keeping it above a fixed point and therefore appearing as ‘stationary.’ As they are high above the planet, fewer satellites are required to cover a large surface area. This means they can provide consistent coverage for services that do not require low latency such as vehicle diagnostics and fleet management. They can also provide support to vehicles in a selected area for infotainment services, including radio signal and entertainment streaming.  

However, while GEOs (Geostationary Earth Orbiting) cover more ground and provide consistent coverage to a fixed location, their high latency means they are less useful for vehicle connectivity which is the backbone of the software defined vehicle.  

Low Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites, on the other hand, do provide low-latency connectivity and higher bandwidth, making them ideal for more demanding, real-time automotive needs. LEOs, as the name suggests, orbit closer to the Earth’s surface than GEO satellites and move rapidly in relation to the planet’s rotation. The orbit of a LEO does not have to follow a particular path around the Earth, providing more available routes than a GEO, which has limited coverage in polar regions due to its limiting equatorial orbit. The ability of LEO satellites to provide connectivity in remote areas and ensure robust support of applications that require constant, real-time data exchange, makes them particularly crucial for advanced automotive technologies like autonomous driving and vehicle-to-everything (V2X) communication. 

While currently both satellite constellation types have their benefits when it comes to delivering comprehensive coverage for vehicles, it is LEOs which have the greater long-term impact, enabling enhanced driving experiences with no coverage gaps to a rapidly evolving automotive industry. While GEO satellites are better positioned for comprehensive coverage for narrowband use cases, LEO satellites, wherever they are available, are superior options for low latency and high bandwidth use cases. 

The future

NTN technology is only at the initial stages of development; the availability of NTN on GEO satellites is very new while the build out of LEO constellations is some years away.  

"NTNs are a complement to, rather than a replacement of, terrestrial networks. They can provide connectivity where no terrestrial network is available or can increase the available data rate where terrestrial connectivity is limited. The focus now is on delivering solutions that will leverage both TN and NTN, providing ubiquitous connectivity for OEMs. Such technology will not only enable reliable vehicle operations but also enhance the end-user experience in areas such as: emergency assistance, navigation reliability, in-vehicle entertainment, and, in the future, autonomous driving’’

Initially, NTN technology will harness GEO satellites and support primarily low bandwidth, non-latency sensitive use cases such as SOS alerts and vehicle diagnosticsOver time, as new LEO constellations are launched, it will be possible to support higher bandwidth use cases such as over-the air (OTA) updates, HD map updates, and vehicle diagnostics from the cloud based on digital twins. In the long-term, NTN coverage will start to enable latency sensitive use cases that are dependent on real time data exchange between vehicles, such as enhanced collision avoidance systems and coordinated driving for autonomous vehicles


With the transition to software-defined vehicle architecture, vehicle functionality will be largely determined by software rather than its hardware capabilities. Such a shift demands ubiquitous connectivity to support critical functions and services. To ensure OEMs continue their transformation into software-first entities and fit the mobility needs of their consumers, the same high-speed, always-on network connectivity must be available in all parts of the world. Non-Terrestrial Network connectivity will be central to delivering on this vision.   

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