The Sky Is the Limit for Airborne LTE

Carl Weinschenk
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Verizon last week announced an ambitious effort to leverage LTE in aerial applications. The program, Airborne LTE Operations (ALO), is set for two years and will include testing of manned and unmanned aircraft (aka drones) on its LTE network; a demonstration in Cape May, New Jersey, of airborne LTE use by first-responders; a developer program; a device certification program; and partnerships with American Aerospace, Sierra Wireless and others.

The press release describes many steps taken by the company and three examples of potential services of ALO: inspection of pipelines and high-voltage power lines without endangering people, aerial imaging to increase agricultural yields of farmland, and unmanned broad views of wildfires or storm damage by first responders.

AT&T is also researching airborne LTE. John Donovan, the chief strategy officer and group president of AT&T Technology and Operations, writing about the company’s direction, focused on the drone element of the projected services. He also concentrated more fully on the use of LTE-enabled drones as replacement COWs, or cells on wheels. The current iteration of COWs is truck-carried mobile cell sites that are driven to areas of need to supplement coverage for short periods of time. The example Donovan uses is to ensure that there is enough capacity at crowded outdoor concerts. COWS are also used at less happy occasions, such as providing connectivity in emergencies. The next version, cells on wings, will use the same acronym.


Qualcomm Technologies is partnering with AT&T on research that will focus on how LTE can enable drones to fly beyond today’s line-of-sight limitations, according to ZDNet. The chip maker’s contribution will be based on the Qualcomm Snapdragon Flight development platform.

LTE in the sky could become a competitive differentiator:

For AT&T and other wireless carriers, the research in LTE-meets-drone use cases could be handy. The smartphone market is saturated and carriers are battling to poach customers from each other. The Internet of Things and connected sensors are a growth market for wireless carriers, but drones would likely use more data in the field.

The drone industry got some good news earlier this year. The federal government released drone-friendly rules clearly intended to help the sector gain altitude, so to speak. A key element of that path to success will be the ongoing research with LTE and, eventually, 5G. In the air, just as on land, the amount of bandwidth available is vital. This makes research by the carriers and their ecosystems on customizing LTE for aerial use very important to watch.

Carl Weinschenk covers telecom for IT Business Edge. He writes about wireless technology, disaster recovery/business continuity, cellular services, the Internet of Things, machine-to-machine communications and other emerging technologies and platforms. He also covers net neutrality and related regulatory issues. Weinschenk has written about the phone companies, cable operators and related companies for decades and is senior editor of Broadband Technology Report. He can be reached at cweinsch@optonline.net and via twitter at @DailyMusicBrk.



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