The trial aims to validate Stratospheric Platforms Ltd (SPL)’s High Altitude Platform Stations (HAPS) antenna technology’s viability to provide 4G and 5G connectivity over BT’s network
Today, BT has announced the company’s latest step towards providing non-terrestrial network connectivity, testing the capabilities of SPL’s latest antenna to connect to BT’s terrestrial mobile networks.
This antenna, if successful, will ultimately be deployed on a HAPS vehicle: essentially a flying mobile base station that will operate from the Earth’s stratosphere, above commercial air traffic but below satellites. From this advantageous position, HAPS will theoretically be able to deliver high quality mobile connectivity over a wide area.
In SPL’s case, the company claims its technology will be able to provide speeds of up to 150Mbps across a range roughly 15,000 square kilometres – the same coverage as roughly 450 terrestrial mobile masts.
Naturally, this far-reaching connectivity will be primarily used to deliver connectivity to hard-to-reach areas where conventional infrastructure is too difficult or expensive to deploy. However, HAPS aircrafts’ pilotable nature also offers a high level of flexibility, allowing for rapid deployment to areas with a temporarily high need for connectivity, such a during a music concert or in the wake of a disaster relief.
While the concept of HAPS connectivity has been around for many years, to date the technology remains largely unproven, a fact that BT and SPL are seeking to rectify.
For this trial, however, the duo will not be taking to the skies just yet.
The test, which will take place at BT’s Adastral Park HQ, will involve deploying SPL’s phased array antenna on a tall building, simulating it being located on a HAPS. From there, the technology will be connected to BT’s 5G network via the company’s Open RAN testbed. The test will include supporting multiple user groups and different potential use cases, concurrently on the same network.
The trial builds on a demonstration by SPL last year which saw one of the company’s masts deployed on a civilian aircraft, from where it facilitated 5G video calling and messaging for around five hours.
“We’re delighted to be partnering with SPL to start realising the huge potential of HAPS aircraft to further strengthen our UK 4G and 5G network technology leadership,” said Tim Whitley, Managing Director Research and Network Strategy at BT Group. “This highly innovative and transformative project has the potential to further enhance our UK 4G and 5G footprint, which is already the largest and most reliable in the UK, to connect unserved rural areas and enable exciting new use cases for private users.”
How long it will take for the partnership between BT and SPL to realise commercial value, however, remains to be seen.
SPL is currently developing its own hydrogen-powered HAPS vehicle, Stratomast, which it claims will be able to fly continuously for over a week once completed. The company has previously said it would target a commercial launch for this vehicle by 2026.
It is worth noting, however, that SPL is not the only company exploring the use of HAPS for mobile connectivity. Earlier this month, Airbus announced it was preparing to spin off its own HAPS development unit, dubbed Aalto, calling for new investors to help scale up the business.
In contrast to Stratomast, Airbus’s solar-powered Zephyr HAPS vehicle has already demonstrated over 26 days of continuous flight, aiming to increase this figure to six months before commercialisation. The company says Zephyr is already “at the final design stage” and should be ready for commercial operations by the end of the year.
As the race to rollout 5G draws to a close, could a race to the skies be next?
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