We’ve written a lot recently about asset sharing in networks. It is undoubtedly an important option for operators looking for ways to make 4G and 5G roll-out more cost-effective – especially in rural and remote areas.

But it is far from the only option. To use a well-worn cliché, as far as network rollout in rural or hard-to-reach areas is concerned it may be time to think outside the box. A long way outside the box. Twenty kilometres or more outside the box in fact.

I’m referring, of course, to High-Altitude Platform Station HAPS – objects flying above the earth’s surface that can act as floating or flying cell towers or base stations – have been a major talking point in the telecommunications press lately. Among many examples already being trialled, two that have enjoyed a lot of coverage come from Japan’s SoftBank and Google parent company Alphabet.

SoftBank’s HAPSMobile aims to transmit a signal, via its unmanned aircraft, that can cover an area 200 kilometres in diameter. Solar-powered and with a wingspan of 75 metres, the aircraft can remain in the stratosphere, at an altitude of 20 Km, for six months at a time, taking advantage of an area above the earth where the weather is mild throughout the year and there is little change in wind speed.

Alphabet’s Loon concept has taken the most essential components of a cell tower and redesigned them to be light and durable enough to be carried by a balloon 20 kilometres up in the stratosphere. By moving with the wind, Loon balloons can be arranged into small clusters to provide periods of prolonged connectivity in a defined area. Loon’s current flight duration record is over 220 days.

Remember, these are not alternatives to mainstream network provision. However, in mountainous regions, where the requirements to provide sites, power, backhaul and site access would result in a very expensive approach to providing connectivity, they could provide a viable way for populations to access the mobile internet. They have also got an obvious role in some forms of disaster relief when the stratosphere could be the only place unaffected in the aftermath of earthquakes or extreme weather phenomena. And in developed countries they might have an additional role providing temporary coverage for events.

As this is being written, many of the technical challenges of such connectivity initiatives are being addressed. In fact, the biggest challenges, may not be technological but regulatory. Permissions to operate above a country are critical to the ability of these solutions to extend internet access to rural and remote populations.

However, Loon in particular is already moving beyond that stage. The Kenyan government has now given formal approval for Loon’s balloons to operate in the stratosphere above the country.

The concept of aerial connectivity is also gaining traction higher above the earth as major names like Elon Musk, Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos work on early-stage ventures that may eventually bring internet connectivity to difficult-to-reach areas using large numbers of small satellites in low earth orbit . So called LEO technology relies on advances in satellite launch economics and new wireless technologies to provide improved services when compared to today’s geostationary satellite based services

Not all of these ventures will succeed – LEO satellites and HAPS are a complex interplay of technology, financing, risk and demand. Facebook’s Aquila project – a solar-powered drone – was abandoned in 2018 after four years. What matters is that multiple groups are looking at rural connectivity in innovative ways, and taking advantage of the new options that technology is permitting them.

We at Real Wireless are willing to bet that those successes will prove that there is a way to bring affordable, reliable connectivity to unconnected areas – if you think outside – or even above – the box. Our deep expertise in wireless techno-economics, satellite and HAPS technologies along with use case analysis, allows us to provide strategic advice to support these fledgling new systems.

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