UK-based Stratospheric Platforms (SPL) has announced what it claims is the world’s first successful demonstration of a HAPS-based 5G base station.

Representing more signs of the momentum behind the effort to deliver 5G coverage from the stratosphere, the demonstration took place in Saudi Arabia, and saw an SPL stratospheric mast – which for the purposes of the demonstration had been installed on a civilian aircraft – deliver high-speed mobile coverage from an altitude of 14 kilometres to a geographical area of 450 square kilometres.

To show off the capabilities of its technology, SPL conducted a three-way video call between a land-based test site, a mobile device operated from a boat, and a control site located 950 kilometres away. Another test saw 4K video streamed to a mobile phone in a helicopter.

“This is a momentous event for the global telecoms industry proving that a 5G telecoms mast flying near the top of the Earth’s atmosphere can deliver stable broadband 5G Internet to serve mobile users with ubiquitous, high-speed Internet, over vast areas,” said Richard Deakin, CEO of SPL, in a statement.

Getting a mast to work at high altitude only solves one part of the problem though. It also needs a flying platform from which to operate, and a civilian aircraft has obvious limitations, not the least of which is the human in the pilot’s seat. With that in mind, SPL is working on an unmanned, twin-propeller aircraft capable of carrying its 5G base station.

“Our hydrogen-powered ‘Stratomast’ high-altitude platform currently under development, will be able to fly for a week without refuelling and cover an area of 15,000 square kilometre using one antenna,” said Deakin.

SPL was founded in Cambridge in 2014. In 2016, Deutsche Telekom became its biggest single shareholder and launch customer. It came out of hiding in 2020 with a demonstration in Germany of an aerial LTE base station.

Should SPL turn its HAPS vision into a sustainable, commercial reality, it will have succeeded where some much bigger names have failed. Google, as many will remember, once had a grand vision to offer connectivity from a fleet of balloons. Called Project Loon, it launched its first – and what turned out to be only – commercial service in Kenya in 2018. It pulled the plug in early 2021. In 2015 Google also dabbled with a drone-based HAPS service called Project Titan, but that came to an end in 2016. Similarly Facebook attempted to roll out drone-based connectivity under the Aquila brand, but threw in the towel two years later.

As SPL’s demonstration demonstrates, these inauspicious examples don’t seem to deterred everyone from having a go at HAPS, and it isn’t the only one. Earlier this year, Japan’s NTT announced it is working with its mobile arm DoCoMo, aircraft maker Airbus, and Japanese satcoms provider Sky Perfect JSAT to look into the feasibility of HAPS-based connectivity.

Per-HAPS flying base stations will be the next big thing in telecoms after all.

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