Not quite the stars, as BT tests flying base stations from tall building

Not quite the stars, as BT tests flying base stations from tall building

BT Adastral Park.jpg

BT is following its German rival and shareholder Deutsche Telekom in looking at using aircraft to deliver broadband to remote areas.

The UK operator is to work with UK based Stratospheric Platforms Ltd (SPL) to try out mobile coverage at BT’s Adastral Park research centre (pictured) in the east of England.

But it will use a tall building instead of an aircraft, it admitted.

BT managing director research and network strategy, Tim Whitley, said: “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.”

In October 2020 Deutsche Telekom worked with SPL to demonstrate high-speed 4G mobile transmission from a remotely powered aircraft.

Deutsche Telecom is the largest shareholder in SPL and the second largest – behind Patrick Drahi – in BT.

The Adastral project has received funding from Innovate UK, said BT this morning. It “could offer transformational opportunities for sectors operating in remote areas such as transport, maritime security and search and rescue and could provide faster and more seamless connectivity direct to consumers mobile devices in remote areas”, said BT.

The company said “SPL’s antenna technology can provide uninterrupted 4G and 5G connectivity direct to consumer smart phones. The phased array antenna is capable of delivering faster speeds, in some cases up to 150Mbps across areas as wide as 140km or 15,000 square km … through 500 individually steerable beams.”

BT said the system – known as HAPS, for high-altitude platform station – could also provide a fallback for terrestrial networks in the event of a disaster, supporting humanitarian aid or disaster relief.

SPL’s CEO, Richard Deakin, said: “This partnership will build further on SPL’s world-first 5G demonstration from the stratosphere achieved in 2022. With BT, we’re pleased to continue our journey supporting the UK to become a science super-power.”

The Deutsche Telekom demonstration in 2020 was carried out in Bavaria using a remotely piloted aircraft system (RPAS) operating at 45,000ft or 14km above the ground.

BT said today that “the first step in BT and SPL’s journey to the skies is the development of a secure 5G HAPS communications demonstration system”.

But it won’t be on an aircraft at first. “SPL’s phased array antenna will be placed on a high building – simulating a high-altitude platform – to test its interaction with BT’s 5G secure architecture, connecting with its open RAN [radio access network] testbed,” said BT. “This test will include supporting multiple user groups and different potential use cases, concurrently on the same network.”

The name of BT’s research centre, Adastral Park, means “to the stars” and comes from the motto of the UK’s air force – as it was built on a former RAF station.


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