Reaching skyward to bridge the digital divide
Ask today’s tech-savvy smartphone users about balloons and they’re likely to recall childhood parties, or maybe even a celebratory hot-air flight. Fun as these memories are, balloons have a far more distinguished scientific significance.
From the Montgolfier brothers’ trials in the 1780s to Michael Faraday’s pioneering experiments in 1824, balloons have been inspiring innovation for centuries. Nowadays, they’re used in meteorology, environmental analysis and aerospace. But fast forward a little and we will soon see them also transforming communications, connecting the unconnected and bridging the digital divide.
Earlier this year, leading telecoms, technology and aviation companies joined forces to create the HAPS Alliance. Launched by SoftBank Corp’s HAPSMobile Inc and Alphabet's Loon LLC (Loon), its mission is to promote the use of high-altitude balloons and other airborne vehicles to provide High Altitude Platform Services (HAPS). A major technical step forward in networking infrastructure, HAPS will bring high-speed connectivity to more people, places and smart infrastructure worldwide.
As a founding HAPS task force member, we’re really excited to play our part in this venture. Nokia has been working with Loon for some time to help carriers extend connectivity to underserved areas. And, while it’s a somewhat lesser known infrastructure option, HAPS offers a practical solution for wireless connectivity, particularly in remote and challenging locations.
Operating infrastructure in the Earth’s stratosphere – from just above the lower atmosphere to the edge of space – has been a long-standing challenge due to its unforgiving environment. However, recent technical advances across solar, battery life and AI now make stratosphere-based networking a reality.
How does it work?
HAPS systems comprise a network of base stations located on gas-filled balloons. Operating above the weather, at some 20 to 50kms above ground level, they are remotely controlled using AI and machine learning to ‘ride’ stratospheric winds and ensure they’re optimally located to guarantee coverage and connectivity.
With the ability to remain airborne for up to 300 days, while providing 130 km2 of coverage, HAPS systems are capable of delivering fast, reliable connectivity at far lower cost than would otherwise be the case in such physically demanding locations.
This unlocks a whole new world of connected possibilities. For example, HAPS shows promise in extending wireless coverage to areas too challenging for traditional infrastructure – such as mountainous terrain, remote islands, marine regions and, in some developing countries. Within the HAPS Alliance, the collective aim is to create an ecosystem that supports universal next-generation global connectivity, not only for basic internet access, but also for IoT and future 5G use-cases.
HAPS in action
Such is its immediate potential that the Kenyan government recently approved a project by Alphabet’s Loon and Telkom Kenya to introduce HAPS and help respond to the on-going Covid-19 pandemic. Delivering 4G service, it will support government efforts to assess and manage infections by providing remote clinics with high-speed internet access to referral hospitals.
And this is important. Not only does its introduction underscore that access to the internet is a fundamental right, but it also encapsulates HAPs’ unique ability to deliver economic and social benefits to unserved and underserved communities. As HAPS begins to extend connectivity to rural, remote and marginalized areas, let’s look to the skies as we seek to bridge the digital divide.
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