Major phone network exploring drone and balloon masts

Topographically challenged parts of the world might soon be served by drone-mounted mobile network masts. Other unusual rural connections are also on the horizon.

ee cow lead image

UK mobile network operator (MNO) EE said this week that it is exploring the use of small aerial cells positioned in the sky over hard-to-reach, patchy signal areas.

It calls the technology "air masts," and says the system uses either "tethered balloons or unmanned craft." Unmanned craft are more commonly called drones.

Air masts

The phone company reckons it's going to be able to implement the masts in the sky in part because it's been banking on what it calls a "unique" micro-network technology. The base stations that it has been using consist of smaller elements than are commonly utilized in an MNO installation.

The smaller, radio-driven base stations that EE has been setting up, and that the drone systems would be based on, are independent of wired broadband and have the added benefit of not requiring roads to be dug up to lay cable.

EE's micro-base stations are being provisioned in 1,500 UK communities that are not served by reliable mobile networks, or broadband.


Those smaller base stations have also been less susceptible to NIMBYism from neighborhoods objecting to unsightly, electro-magnetic radiating masts being erected in their community.

It's worth noting, however, that Not-In-My-Back-Yard activism is becoming less of a problem overall, as the populous begin to realize the benefits of mobile phone service, EE says.

Drones may be another matter. We'll have to wait and see what the residents are going to say about objects whizzing around their ancient and picturesque villages.

Disguised antennas

EE is not inexperienced in the disguising of antennas, though. During the 2014 Glastonbury music festival in rural England, the MNO implemented expressive life-sized fiberglass dairy cows that functioned as 4G hotspots.

Perhaps the new air-masts EE is pitching could be disguised as artistic birds.

Connected sheep

EE is not the only organization experimenting with unusual rural connectivity methods, though. A UK university aims to connect sheep, badgers, and other country-life with digital collars.

Disappointingly, the project isn't designed to provide public Internet access via the farm animals. For now at least, you're not going to be able to meander through bucolic rural countryside checking Facebook via an adjacent sheep's collar.

The $261,000 project, being run by Lancaster University, is actually designed to assess whether the Internet of Things can be extended to the countryside.

Riverbank sensors monitor rainfall in the experiment, for example, and over time the sheep will be equipped with connected collars to try to understand their habits. I can, in-fact, answer that question: they eat grass all day.

However, Andrew Forgrave, writing in the Daily Post newspaper about the Internet-enabled riverbanks and sundry connected animals, says that, in theory, the 5 km-range collars "could also be used to create as many Wi-Fi access points as the animals wearing them."

Indeed, it wouldn't be the first time that sheep had been used for tasks other than creating wool. Sheep were recently fitted with Sony action cameras in order to film the Tour De France bicycle race passing through farmland.

So, farm fields go high-tech? Sounds good to me. But, based on my knowledge of the countryside, I'm going to suggest that, if the MNO does get its rural drones in the air, it grounds them during hunting season.

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