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What is EE Air Mast and how will it deliver fast internet to rural areas?

What is EE’s new Air Mast technology and how will it help rural areas be better connected? Here’s everything you need to know about the new EE Air Mast initiative.

EE has shown off its latest scheme to bring better internet connectivity to the whole of the UK, particularly those hard-to-reach rural areas, using a killer combination of drones and balloons.

Yup, EE wants to fly internet connectivity into areas where people have little to no network data on their devices. This isn’t just for casual users either. EE’s Air Mast tech could also be vital for emergency services who require dependable connectivity in areas otherwise devoid of a solid data connection, or after disasters that wipe out network infrastructure.

So how can balloons and drones help to achieve this goal of bringing better internet connectivity to the UK’s more rural areas? Here’s everything you need to know about the EE Air Mast plan.

What is an EE Air Mast and how does it work?

One example of an EE Air Mast is a balloon filled with helium gas that floats, but remains tethered to the ground. This allows the contraption (known as the Helikite) to receive mains power while the signal mast can float high in the sky, to avoid obstacles that might otherwise hinder signal strength.

Other versions of Air Mast that will also be used include a drone based system and a car mounted mast that can be used to reach more difficult locations. These also mean a quick and easy setup is possible, which is ideal for temporary signal boosts.

Who will benefit from the EE Air Masts?

Primarily the goal of EE is to offer 95 percent 4G coverage by 2020. It is currently improving 100 sites per day and plans to add the Air Masts to the mix this year. This will mean currently less connected rural areas can get online.

In places where there are a lot of mountains, for example, it might not be possible to get fibre internet for the home. These places may have a mobile dongle option instead, but even these don’t work in all areas. But the EE Air Masts can overcome such problems and means even those living in hard-to-reach areas will be able to get connectivity, regardless of geographical problems.

Read next: How to get broadband internet without a phone line

The EE Air Masts could also be useful for temporary events like festivals, where signal needs to be boosted in a large rural area for a short period of time. Someone climbing a mountain could even have their own personal aerial coverage solution to keep them connected all the way to the top and back. Presumably this would be for safety reasons rather than just to help share selfies, of course.

EE says these masts could also prove invaluable as a means of offering connectivity in the wake of disaster areas. This could potentially help emergency services in times of need, as well as allowing anyone stranded to send out a distress signal. The Air Masts could also be an assistive force in keeping the Emergency Services Network running maintenance and for during local site outages.

How do EE Air Masts work?

The Air Masts themselves use a combination of technologies from several different companies to deliver the network connection. Here’s everyone involved as listed by EE:

“Nokia has provided world class, lightweight, compact and portable Flexi Zone small cell base station solutions; Parallel Wireless has delivered a unique technology with self-configuring and self-optimising base station, in-band backhaul capability, and network meshing techniques; Avanti has enabled a fast, reliable satellite backhaul connection; VoltServer has provided touch-safe and flexible Digital Electricity power over data cable/tether; uVue has evolved drone designs to meet the specific requirements of providing mobile coverage; and Allsopp Helikites has provided the ‘Helikite’ solution that makes a stable, high altitude service possible.”

Essentially the small cells are connected via satellite back to the EE network. This allows for seemingly normal internet connectivity for users, as if connecting to the network as they usually do.

Despite the EE Air Masts still being in a patent pending status at the time of writing, the network says it should begin rolling them out later in 2017.

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