5G …. from a plane!

You may have accidentally left your phone on during a flight and, if you’re a geek like me, you may have spotted that sometimes – for a brief moment – you get a mobile signal.

Even 7 miles up, your phone can lock onto the odd network mast as you fly over countries. I’ve accidentally had queued text messages sent this way, and yes – it works.

So… how about doing that in reverse?

Well, that’s what the guys at Cambridge Consultants are planning, and they already have Deutsche Telekom on board and funding the project. Working in conjunction with Stratospheric Platforms Limited (SPL), it’s a wireless antenna unlike anything seen before. Put simply, it (currently) involves sticking high-capacity 5G mobile masts into a fleet of “High Altitude Platforms” – currently these are planes, with test flights being conducted in Bavaria using a H3Grob 520 aeroplane which is remotely piloted and flies at 45,000ft.

However, the end goal is to deploy a fleet of zero emissions HAP aircraft at around 65,000 feet (that’s a smidgen higher than Concorde used to fly at), flying effectively in hold patterns for more than a week at a time.

Each “HAP” plane will provide coverage over an area of up to 140 kilometres (87 miles) in diameter. That would remove the need for hundreds of “normal” 5G masts on the ground. A planned fleet of around 60 HAPs could blanket the whole of the United Kingdom with speedy 5G connectivity.

Now, I know what you’re thinking. Isn’t this all a bit… mad? A bit .. costly?

One “HAP” pushing 5G to everything in the M25

Well, first you’ve got to consider how many mobile masts are needed to keep our phones going. As an example, here in the UK, Vodafone have 21,000 masts. Each one needs to be built on some land or placed on a building. That costs money and a rental has to be paid. It’s somewhere between £5,000 and £11,000 depending on the location. Then there’s power. More money. Then there’s a high-capacity backhaul (fibre). Loadsa money. Cheap it isn’t.

Imagine being able to turn them all off and instead use some remotely-controlled (or, in the future, computer-controlled) aircraft using zero-emission hydrogen power. It would, according to Stratospheric Platforms Limited, “operate at a fraction of the cost of building and maintaining normal terrestrial masts and infrastructure, with minimal environmental impact”. It would completely rewrite the economics of providing mobile telephony and data.

So, the proof of concept is complete. Once fully ready, the 5G antenna will be large, powerful and lightweight. It’ll sit below the HAP measuring three square meters and will weigh around 120kg.

Best of all? Not much will change. Your current phone will connect to the 5G signal (which will be coming from above instead of alongside you), and the backhaul will be handled without thousands of complex and expensive fibre-optic links.

Imagine just how costly and difficult it currently is to cover Wales with current ground-based masts.

Stratospheric Platforms Limited tell us…

With radically cheaper costs, this new platform has the potential to connect the unconnected in the developing world, to fill gaps in coverage across the developed world and to ensure rural areas aren’t left behind anywhere across the globe. In addition, the hydrogen power system creates a long endurance, low environmental impact aircraft, with low noise, zero CO2 and zero NOx emissions.

Rollout of the first commercial service is anticipated to begin in Germany during 2024.

The clever mobile “masts in the air” will effectively be a modular design which can scale seamlessly. Within the antenna is 480 individual, steerable beams, creating patterns that can be “painted” onto the ground to cover specific areas such as roads, railway lines or towns. Here you can see that the beam has been altered so that the sea isn’t covered…

With the 5G rollout and heavy investment already happening across the UK, the big question is – will networks wait until 2024 and use this instead?

More information on StratosphericPlatforms.com.