Sprint's 'Magic' Small Cell Takes to the Air

Sprint has been testing taking its network to the skies with a small cell on a drone, aimed at extending the reach of its 2.5GHz 4G network.

The operator said Tuesday the "aerial small cell" can extend the range of its 2.5GHz 4G LTE network up to ten square miles, in initial tests in Midlothian, Texas, outside of Dallas. The device uses the Magic Box small cell from Airspan Networks Inc. (Nasdaq: AIRN), mounted on a drone from CyPhy Works. Like the Magic Box already deployed by Sprint Corp. (NYSE: S), the small cell can connect to subscriber devices and a nearby cellsite or cell-on-wheels (COW) -- up to six miles away in this case -- Sprint says, delivering both customer connectivity and wireless backhaul over the air. (See Sprint's Next Trick? They Call It a 'Magic Box' for more on the small cell.)

What might have seemed like an interesting experiment gains sharper focus in light of the recent hurricanes -- Harvey, Irma and Maria -- blasting parts of the US, Puerto Rico and other American territories. Puerto Rico has suffered cell service outage, adding to the burden of residents already suffering from the disaster. Sprint says that the flying small cell -- in conjunction with mobile COWs -- could be used to provide a "flying data service" in hard-to-reach areas after an emergency. (See 2017 Storms May Mean Network Rethink.)

It could also handle more mundane tasks, such as adding capacity for the big game at a stadium or high-trafficked urban areas.

See this video from Sprint for more:

Sprint isn't the first tech player to consider airborne wireless platforms by any means. Google (Nasdaq: GOOG) has its Loon balloons, and Facebook is testing solar drones, and more. The Sprint flying Magic Box, however, is much closer to the ground than near-space alternatives being explored by Facebook and Google.

— Dan Jones, Mobile Editor, Light Reading

bosco_pcs 10/9/2017 | 2:45:04 PM
Re: Context Sorry being offtopic but to clarify, when I mentioned Musk, I was talking about battery supremacy and not with respect to his offer to Pureto Rico. 

Musk is a savvy businessman and technologist, but his promises, quite frankly, are questionable - even if he is sincere. Personally, I think he was using Pureto Rico to divert attention from his problems with Tesla (the car) production.

I don't wish to argue with Musk's supporters though. But look, if Pureto Rico's infrastructure is gone, the battery won't work. I mean, do you ship and truck the batteries back and forth from the mainland? If the infrastructure is back, mobile generators may be a better way to help stopgap until you build the renewable generation infrastructure from the ground up. 

kq4ym 10/9/2017 | 2:23:27 PM
Re: Context And interesting that Musk has offered to help Puerto Rico with his battery technology. That would be pretty cool to see some alternative energy installed big time there. I think I read they already have some wind turbines that survived the storm.
bosco_pcs 10/7/2017 | 12:56:11 PM
Re: Context Just saw on the TV news this morning, Google is going to deploy balloons over Puerto Rico. 

Obviously, balloons can stay aloft longer but are more passive than drones; ultimately though, IHMO, the best battery technology wins, not just for COW but everything else going forward.

I said this way back when Apple was rumored poaching A123 engineers. And that is why such a cult with Elon Musk's various dealings. But all techs will need to revolve around that. Faster charging, lighter package, lower consumption.
kq4ym 10/7/2017 | 9:37:38 AM
Re: Context It seems to me this is really a "pie in the sky" deal here. The length of time a small drone can stay flyng is very limited, and it just seems there are better ways to solve even emergency communications problems than this solution. But, at least it's good publicity for the drone industry and Sprint
DanJones 9/27/2017 | 7:06:49 PM
Re: Context See AT&T COW story above, people trying to slice this a few ways.
KBode 9/27/2017 | 1:51:59 PM
Re: Context I suppose these are more useful than COWs because of mobility, but I'm curious if the trade offs in terms of power and other limitations don't nullify some of the advantages?
bosco_pcs 9/27/2017 | 1:48:35 PM
Re: Context You are right in times of emergency. Besides, even if these radios can run for a while, the handsets are likely to be drained without any continuous power source. And if the handsets can be powered, the radios can landed on location and become a provisional base/mobile station of sort.

Would carriers be willing to shell out the investment for this purpose though, when they are even unwilling to invest in basic infrastructure. 

On a related but separated note, AT&T is supposed to invest in the rural areas. My friend tried that a few years ago but didn't get too much funding. And VZ's aggressive rollout of 4G basically spelled the doom of his startup
DanJones 9/27/2017 | 1:39:16 PM
Re: Context I'm asking for more detail from various carriers. I assume the tests are to discern some of these details. Probably even 30 minutes or an hour's coverage would be helpful to a good deal of the population in PR right now though.
bosco_pcs 9/27/2017 | 12:55:39 PM
Re: Context How long can these little guys can stay aloft? Or do they just fly to certain staging areas and park themselves there? And the power source? It seems that there are a lot of logistical problems to be ironed out before they care be functionally feasible
DanJones 9/27/2017 | 11:36:48 AM
Context Of course these flying small cells won't be available to help people in Puerto Rico and Florida now, these are test units at the moment.
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