Startup Altaeros has built a tethered blimp called a SuperTower, full of Ericsson-made wireless equipment, that it plans to use to provide rural LTE coverage. The SuperTower can be used for disaster relief, temporary network bolstering, and of course, permanent coverage in one area. The company put its design to the test in rural Maine, where it ran LTE network tests to determine how far its network coverage could stretch, how strong it was, and if it was as fast and reliable as ground-based equipment. The test was successful, and SuperTowers will be available for operators to purchase and commission later this year.
SuperTowers float high in the air but are tethered to a single spot on the ground. According to Altaeros, this means that they can provide about 30 times the coverage of a normal cellular tower. Since they don't require as much space and fixed equipment as ground-based towers, SuperTowers are also easier and cheaper to set up and maintain. Finally, the Ericsson equipment on board is as high-end as they come and is fully ready for an easy upgrade to 5G once the standard is live and whatever carrier is using the tower has built out a 5G network on the ground for the SuperTower to connect to, according to the two partners. The tethered aerostat used by Altaeros is a proprietary design that takes an ordinary blimp and modifies it to be more friendly to network equipment, and be tethered to the ground.
This product is the culmination of over seven years of research and development, and fulfills the singular purpose that Altaeros was founded for. Springing forth from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2010, Altaeros had the sole goal of creating a cheaper, easier, and cleaner cell tower by simply putting it into the air. That goal has been accomplished, and once the product goes on commercial sale, cellular providers and consumers should reap its benefits. As a side effect that couldn't have been predicted back in 2010, this nicely solves the problem of rural 5G; multiple towers can intersect signals with lower-band spectrum to create a speedy connection through network virtualization, MIMO, and packet partitioning, or multiple towers packed with small cells can be deployed in a chain to cover strips of highways, rural subdivisions, and other areas of interest, until the sky is eventually dotted with enough floating cell towers to provide fast rural 5G coverage from small cells to the entirety of rural America. Outside of rural usage, the increased range and reduced cost may well make Altaeros's SuperTowers the future of mobile broadband.