High-Flying Drones, Balloons Have Great Promise, Says GlobalData

Data and analytics firm GlobalData says web firms like Facebook and Google should partner with telecoms to use high-flying drones and balloons to offer broadband services to rural areas.

The company actually calls balloons “atmospheric satellites” because they fit in the space between true satellites commonly used for communications and ground-based networks. Their theoretical advantage over satellites is much lower cost, according to ciLaunching a balloon or a drone and equipping it with a radio base station represents a much cheaper way of covering large swaths of land.

Carriers like AT&T are testing drones to act as temporary cell sites after a disaster, Inside Towers reported. Google used balloons (Project Loon) in Puerto Rico last year after two hurricanes destroyed much of the telecom infrastructure on the island. Now, GlobalData says in a release, Google’s parent Alphabet, turned the Loon balloon project into an independent company that partnered with Telkom Kenya with plans to launch balloon-based commercial 4G/LTE services to parts of Kenya in 2019.

However after four years of setbacks, Facebook this June abandoned developing its own high-flying solar-powered drones (Aquila project) for delivering internet connectivity, according to the company. Facebook will now focus on working with partners like Airbus on a high altitude platform station system, which is capable of beaming down high-speed internet.

GlobalData Telecom Technology and Software Analyst Emir Halilovic says several challenges remain for delivering internet connectivity to rural areas using drones or balloons. Potential customers are spread out all over the world. “Truly addressing this group would require the participation of multiple operators in dozens of countries,” he says. Also, many potential customers can’t afford a mobile plan no matter the delivery technology.

Still, Halilovic believes telcos should continue to test atmospheric satellites to support development of services for quick restoration of communication services in natural disasters and to improve access to medical services in isolated locations.   

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September 6, 2018

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