U.K. operator EE says it has developed a technology that can supply voice and data connection in the most remote parts of the country, as well anywhere in the country during and after disasters such as floods. The operator demonstrated the system, which uses a network of small cells, balloons and so-called air masts based on drones.
The operator explained that the technology uses mini-mobile sites attached to helium balloons, or Helikites, to supply wide-area 4G/LTE mobile coverage where permanent sites have been damaged, or in areas where there is no high-speed coverage. EE also showcased drones equipped with mini-sites, each including a base station and antenna, which can be used to provide targeted coverage, including in search-and-rescue operations. For calling and internet access, the technology uses small cells that connect back to the EE network via satellite or the operator’s 4G spectrum.
Patents are currently pending on the tethered and powered mobile air mast systems, and EE expects to deliver a deployed balloon solution in a rural environment at some point during 2017.
Even in highly developed countries such as the U.K., lack of sufficient network coverage due to geographic factors can be a significant problem for operators and their customers. While one might imagine that ingenious methods to spread coverage to rural areas is something more characteristic of developing countries with highly isolated communities and forbidding climates, they are sometimes necessary in mature mobile markets, as well.
EE’s plan to use drones and balloons that connect to small-cell networks is a useful example of how operators can take matters into their own hands and build infrastructure in non-traditional ways when traditional solutions will not work.
The U.K. in particular has suffered from the so-called “not-spot” syndrome for quite a while, and we believe that by addressing it this way—provided the technology lives up to expectations—EE will deliver higher satisfaction levels to existing customers and also garner some new ones.
The air-mast solution would not only bring in revenue and boost retention and acquisition, it would also distinguish the operator in its market. In addition, the disaster contingency and relief applications of the new technology should bring additional kudos to EE, in terms of recognition for public service, and thereby burnish its brand.