A fleet of blimp balloons is bringing mobile phone and wireless broadband coverage to rural communities in a landmark scheme for the UK.
Mobile phone operator EE says the fleet will enable remote communities to maintain voice and data services when coverage is lost due to natural disasters such as flooding. EE expects to launch its first “helikite” – a mobile broadcast site tethered to helium balloons – later this year. EE is also preparing to deliver coverage via drones, although that project is not ready to launch.
The balloons will allow a mobile signal to be beamed into the area below, allowing communities to make calls and access the internet when the traditional mobile phone mast system goes down or needs more capacity.
Marc Allera, the chief executive of EE, said that the balloons – and ultimately the drones – could also be used to boost coverage at major events and venues such as Glastonbury or Wembley Stadium, where mobile phone users often struggle to connect to networks.
“I see innovations like this revolutionising the way people connect,” he said. “In the future, why couldn’t an event organiser request temporary EE capacity increase in a rural area. Or a climber going up Ben Nevis order EE aerial coverage to follow them as they climb?”
However, the company added that airspace regulations could hamper wider use at football matches and music festivals.
The company said the helikite balloons are best suited for ensuring coverage in the case of natural disasters and events, because they can stay airborne for up to a month and have a signal radius of up to 5km.
The balloons are more weather-resistant than the drones, although the company said lightning strikes posed a risk.
Because they are motor-powered the drones can only stay airborne for a few hours at a time, and only have a signal range of up to 2km, making them best suited for shorter usage such as search and rescue operations.