High-altitude platform systems (HAPS) are again in the news after UK company Stratospheric Platforms Limited (SPL), a partner of German telecommunications company Deutsche Telekom, successfully trialled pioneering technology that provides 5G network coverage from the stratosphere in Saudi Arabia.
Conducted on 5 February at the Red Sea Project site on Saudi Arabia’s western coast, the test is described as the world’s first demonstration of HAPS using aircraft to extend a 5G service, covering a geographical area of 450 square kilometres.
The trial was facilitated by Saudi Arabia’s digital regulator, CITC. Speaking after the successful conclusion of the test, Dr Mohammed Al Tamimi, Governor of CITC, said: “This successful demonstration puts us at the technological frontier globally and takes us closer to our Vision 2030 goal of extending high-quality ICT access to every part of the country.”
HAPS are radio stations located on an object flying or floating in the stratospheric layer. Stratospheric Platforms used a German-made, long-endurance Grob aircraft for the Saudi trial. While HAPS remains an emerging technology, it can potentially bring connectivity to areas that are not covered, or are only partially covered, by cellular networks.
Positioned at high altitude and providing a clear and evenly distributed signal, HAPS enables – or could enable – capabilities that include the Internet of Things (IOT), emergency communications, disaster recovery, temporary coverage for events and tourist hotspots, and terrestrial site backhaul.
The 5G HAPS technology may have been proven, but is commercial development now possible? Interestingly, this trial coincides with the publication by the GSMA, together with British Telecom, Deutsche Telekom, IntelSat, Orange, NTT DOCOMO, SoftBank, Telefonica and TIM, of a new version of its whitepaper ‘High Altitude Platform Systems – Towers in the Skies’.
The paper explores the economic and technical boundary conditions for terrestrial roll-outs for several use case scenarios including greenfield, whitespots, fixed wireless access, disaster response, private networks and coverage over the sea.
The paper characterises each of these use case scenarios to provide more information to HAPS providers from the point of view of mobile operators. The paper also highlights unique challenges and characteristics in different countries. It is available on the GSMA website.