Altaeros tests airborne radio systems for affordable rural coverage

Start-ups in the mobile infrastructure market are rare, but US firm Altaeros says it has a new approach to the difficult economics of rural 5G build-out.

The company has pioneered a variation on the increasingly popular approach of using balloons or ‘stratellites’ to support rural coverage. Its SuperTower platform uses small airships, called aerostats, to raise cellular radio equipment 800 feet into the air, in place of building a mast. This reduces the cost of deploying and operating a rural network by about 60%, says the company, because one aerostat can do the work of about 15 cell towers.

The aerostats are not free-moving balloons, however, but are tethered, with power and cables running along those tethers.

The start-up’s CEO and CTO, Ben Glass, told Mobile World Live that the firm is testing its system with “some of the big carriers that are household names” in the USA, with deployments likely around the turn of the year.

Applications filed with the FCC show Altaeros has conducted FDD-LTE tests in PCS spectrum and TD-LTE tests in 2.5 GHz. Sprint confirmed that the latter took place in its airwaves, but did not comment on whether it was evaluating the technology for itself, or just letting Altaeros use some of its plentiful and underused 2.5 GHz capacity.

“If you look at the trajectory of new technologies historically they’ve all started in urban areas and slowly trickled out into rural markets,” said Glass. “But with 5G a lot of the use cases are pretty relevant for rural areas, and we think SuperTowers will allow carriers to accelerate the rural 5G build so it keeps pace with the urban build.”

He said the height that can be achieved with this airborne approach improves coverage distances and provides line of sight of more than 35 miles. Radios and antennas are aloft on the aerostat while baseband equipment remains on the ground, connected by the cables.