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Intelsat to test 4G connections to iPhones from stratosphere

Satellite company Intelsat appears to be coming down to Earth. Or, at least a little lower.

Specifically, Intelsat is asking for FCC permission to test LTE connections in Arizona from a "high-altitude platform system," or HAPS. The company said the HAPS is an unmanned aircraft operated by Airbus, and that it will allow the company to offer an unspecified "broadband application" for fixed and mobile users, including those with iPhones.

Intelsat declined to answer questions about the test from Light Reading. However, the company has made no secret of its interest in HAPS operations, which typically operate in the stratosphere, or around 60,000 feet above the Earth's surface. While that's certainly way up there, Intelsat's traditional geostationary satellites typically orbit the globe around 20,000 miles above the Earth's surface.

Intelsat was among a handful of companies – along with SoftBank's HAPSMobile, Loon, AeroVironment, Airbus, Bharti Airtel, Deutsche Telekom, Ericsson, Nokia and Telefónica – that formed the HAPS Alliance early last year.

And Intelsat underscored its interest in the technology in a white paper released by the alliance last year and authored by Loon. "As the foundational architects of space-based communications and video broadcast services, Intelsat is continuously exploring new innovations that advance and secure boundless applications for our customers," said Greg Ewert, Intelsat's VP of strategy and business development, in the white paper. "Ubiquitous communications on a truly global scale that delivers on the growing expectations for low latency and high speed will require the integration of numerous networks and technologies working together in harmony. Intelsat is committed to turning the promise of global communications ubiquity into reality through the advancement of exciting innovations. We view opportunities in the stratosphere as a logical extension to our network designs."

According to the alliance's white paper, HAPS "can act as floating cell towers, providing network latency that is comparable to that of terrestrial cell towers but with up to 200 times the geographic coverage from a single vehicle. At an altitude of just 20km, HAPS can connect directly to mobile handsets, modems and IoT devices using standard 4G LTE and 5G protocols. In addition to expanding telecom coverage into rural and challenging terrains, HAPS operate above the weather and can be moved at will, enabling flexibility in the coverage area and emergency coverage in times of outages and disasters."

Interestingly, Airbus – the supplier of the HAPS aircraft for Intelsat's tests – just last month announced a successful test flight of its Zephyr HAPS in Arizona. The solar-powered aircraft has a wingspan of around 80 feet and weighs around 165 pounds, and can fly in the stratosphere for almost a month at a time.

To be clear, Intelsat isn't the only company playing in this area. For example, SoftBank's HAPSMobile and Loon announced in October they successfully tested their own “Sunglider” solar-powered unmanned aircraft from New Mexico's Spaceport America.

"The stratosphere-ready payload used in the test flight was a first-of-its-kind for a fixed-wing, autonomous aircraft-based HAPS to deliver LTE connectivity," the companies wrote. "Using MIMO technology, the payload enabled LTE connectivity to be delivered continuously for approximately 15 hours during Sunglider’s test flight."

Others testing Internet connections from airborne or space-borne transmitters include Elefante Group, Altaeros, SpaceX and SpaceMobile. Interestingly, Facebook mostly shuttered its Aquila project in 2018, which would have used gigantic, solar-powered planes to beam Internet connections to rural areas.


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