EE to build drones and balloons for better reception

UK telco EE has unveiled plans to deliver mobile and wireless broadband connectivity to internet blackspots via drones and helium balloons.

The company noted that its ‘air mast’ solution will be able to bolster 4G data services in rural locations, at major events, or in areas where natural disasters, such as flooding, have damaged traditional infrastructure.

EE CEO Marc Allera said that customers would be able to request a balloon with a mobile signal to hover over a certain area, providing them with an ‘on demand’ data service.

Dubbed ‘Helikites’ the sites will include a base station and antennae tethered to helium balloons. EE hopes to launch the first Helikite balloons later this year.

Drone technology is also under development to support the Helikite solution, it will not be introduced for the next year or two.

“I see innovations like this revolutionising the way people connect. We’re developing the concept of ‘coverage on demand”, said Allera.

The idea is that an event organiser could request a temporary EE capacity increase in a rural area, or a climber going up Ben Nevis could order an EE aerial coverage solution to follow them as they climb,

“We need to innovate, and we need to think differently, always using customers’ needs to drive the way we create new technologies,” he added.

The company also provided details on a fleet of rapid response vehicles (RRVs) which will be used to provide 4G connectivity to police, fire and ambulance services under a contract with the Emergency Services Network (ESN). At least to start with, Helikites are not expected to be used in the ESN programme.

EE is currently upgrading over 100 sites to 4G every week as part of its aim to reach 92 percent geographic coverage in the UK over the course of 2017. The company is also rolling out an additional 3,000 sites using low 800MHz spectrum to be able to reach further distances in rural areas and improve indoor coverage.