As emerging economies around the world focus on digital transformation as a path toward socioeconomic empowerment, bringing connectivity to all is increasingly critical. Nearly half of the world’s population is still not connected to the Internet. Among those that have connectivity, many are under-connected. Connecting these people requires not just bringing network infrastructure to more people, but establishing a regulatory environment that fosters innovation and encourages investment.
“HAPS systems have the potential to become an important tool for bringing broadband to hard‑to‑reach and unserved areas.”
To do its part, Facebook, working with a range of partners, has launched several initiatives focused on connecting unserved and underserved communities. Connecting everyone will require a mix of technological solutions. So Facebook has been investing in research and development for a range of technologies, including mobile, satellite, and aerial, like high altitude platform stations (HAPS).
HAPS are stratospheric stations, each composed of an aerial vehicle and a payload that operate at around 20 km above ground. HAPS systems have the potential to become an important tool for bringing broadband to hard-to-reach and unserved areas, supplementing existing networks to meet ever-increasing demand, and serving as “instant infrastructure” in emergency communications and disaster relief.
First, HAPS can be deployed quickly to cover wide service areas — approximately a 50 km radius — over any type of geography, including difficult terrain, because minimal ground infrastructure is required.
Second, HAPs are reliable. Advances in aeronautics, as well as battery and solar power technology, allow HAPS to operate continuously for long periods of time without many of the risks that other networks face (e.g., accidental damage, theft, conflict areas, and natural disasters).
Third, HAPS systems are broadband-capable, thanks to unprecedented advances in communication technologies.
These features make HAPS economically viable as backhaul for broadband and 5G, as part of both terrestrial and satellite networks in areas where other technologies may be hard to deploy due to difficult terrain or long distances from population centres. Additionally, HAPS can provide “instant infrastructure” to extend connectivity rapidly during natural disasters.
The technological development and commercial maturity of HAPS has been fuelled by a growing industry ecosystem that includes leaders in the communications, content, and aerospace sectors. Over the last fifteen years, a significant number of global aeronautical manufacturers have invested in developing HAPS technology. And there is also commercial interest from terrestrial partners that seek to leverage HAPS’s cost-effective backhaul capabilities to enable terrestrial network deployment in unserved and underserved areas. Satellite operators too have also shown an interest in incorporating HAPS into their networks to facilitate access to data-intensive applications in remote areas. For example, HAPS could be used to create a “hotspot” of concentrated capacity where needed within large satellite footprints.
The missing enabler for the short-term commercial rollout of HAPS remains access to sufficient globally harmonized spectrum. This will drive the technology’s affordability, and capability to contribute in closing the digital divide.
“The technological development and commercial maturity of HAPS has been fuelled by a growing industry ecosystem.”
The spectrum needs of broadband HAPS systems cannot be fully accommodated within existing ITU identifications due to geographical restrictions or technical limitations. Therefore, at the upcoming World Radiocommunication Conference (WRC‑19), ITU Member States will consider modifications to existing regulations to increase spectrum access for HAPS in millimeter wave bands under Agenda Item 1.14.
Extensive studies carried out by multiple parties at the ITU Radiocommunication Sector (ITU–R) Working Party 5C demonstrated that HAPS can be deployed in bands under consideration while protecting incumbent services. Flexible use of these bands can be enabled with properly-defined ITU–R regulatory constraints on HAPS such as PFD limits at the border and out-of-band emission limits.
Agenda Item 1.14 has garnered support from across regions, notably in Europe, Africa, as well as in the Americas. Regions with large unconnected populations (and compelling use cases for HAPS) have taken a leading role in regulatory discussions on this topic: the African Telecommunications Union (ATU) expressed its support for this initiative to improve global broadband access during its last WRC‑19 preparatory meeting, and African subregions have developed proposals to identify spectrum for HAPS on a co-primary basis with other services. See the African Telecommunications Union Report of the 3rd African Preparatory Meeting for World Radiocommunication Conference 2019 (APM19‑3) (Sep. 2018) at 8 (supporting the designation of certain fixed service bands for HAPS, in accordance with Resolution 160 (WRC‑15)).
Similar positions have been developed by the Inter-American Communications Commission (CITEL) and have reached the status of Draft Inter-American proposals and Inter-American proposals due to the support of multiple administrations across the continent.
Technological advances and the growth of a mature business ecosystem around stratospheric connectivity technologies make HAPS a viable solution to complement extend reach and applications of broadband networks.
To fulfill the promise of HAPS, ITU Member States may wish to give proper attention to Agenda item 1.14, and proposals for identification of harmonized frequency bands for HAPS at WRC‑19.
*This article is one of a series commissioned for ‘Terrestrial Wireless Communications’ edition of ITU News Magazine. Views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of ITU.