Aerial base station delivers 4G coverage from the Earth's stratosphere

(Image credit: Deutsche Telekom)

Deutsche Telekom has conducted the world’s first successful trial of an aerial base station deployed in the Earth’s stratosphere in a development that could pave the way for better mobile coverage in rural areas.

Several test flights were carried out in the German region of Bavaria using remote controlled aircraft deployed at approximately 14 kilometres above the Earth’s surface.

It is hoped the technology will be able to cover rural areas that are too challenging or too expensive to cover with conventional technologies and extend the reach of industrial applications.

Aerial base station

Satellite and microwave backhaul have often been touted as potential solutions, but both have their disadvantages. The former, for example, cannot deliver the ultra-low latency demanded by 5G.

Antennas on the aircraft were able to connect to the T-Mobile terrestrial 4G network and provide users on the ground with download speeds of up to 70Mbps using a standard smartphone. The high altitude of the plane, unobstructed view of the ground, and specialist equipment mean the plane can provide coverage to an area of 100 kilometres.

"We have shown that we can bring fast Internet and connectivity anywhere in the future. The combined know-how of SPL and Telekom's mobile communications expertise is the basis for this new technology, said Bruno Jacobfeuerborn, a member of the SPL board and MD of Deutsche Funkturm.

“Particularly in areas that are difficult to access with traditional mobile masts, flying base stations will be a useful and cost-efficient addition to our mobile communications network".

Deutsche Telekom says end users won’t notice the difference between an aerial and conventional base station, but it will take some time for theory to become a practicality. The system is reliant on the creation of a power-efficient aircraft that can stay airborne for extended periods of time.

SPL says it hopes to have a hydrogen-powered, remote controlled aircraft and associated infrastructure ready for the middle of 2022.

Steve McCaskill is TechRadar Pro's resident mobile industry expert, covering all aspects of the UK and global news, from operators to service providers and everything in between. He is a former editor of Silicon UK and journalist with over a decade's experience in the technology industry, writing about technology, in particular, telecoms, mobile and sports tech, sports, video games and media.