An organisation named Aerostats All Australia (AAA) is proposing to use tethered balloons known as aerostats to deliver mobile coverage to remote and regional areas of Australia – a project that could be seen as offering competition to NBN’s Sky Muster satellite service, which is due to beginning operating in the second quarter of 2016.
However AAA believes that, if it can gain appropriate spectrum, it could work with NBN and avoid the need for the national broadband network builder to launch a third Sky Muster satellite in coming years at a cost of more than $1 billion (Sky Muster 1 is already flying; a second is due for launch next year).
The aerostats envisaged for use by Ben Livson, a former Telstra exec who is the driving force behind the project, are known as Desert Star Helikites, since they’re part tethered balloon, part kite able to exploit both wind and helium for its lift. (Some are already in use by Australian Special Forces).
They would fly at altitudes between 300 and 1200 metres, many of them tethered to existing mobile towers, since this gives access to roads, power and fibreoptic backhaul. At 1200m the aerostat would have a cell site coverage of as much as 48,000 sq km.
The immediate aim is to double mobile coverage from less than a third of the Australian land mass to two-thirds. Later coverage would be extended to cover most of the 70pc of Australia not currently covered by mobile services.
But Livson faces a number of hefty problems. For a start the project would need access to suitable spectrum – which is coveted by other would-be users. It would also need the cooperation of Telstra, which owns most of the towers, as a well as the Government and NBN. And it would need a heap of money.
Livson this week told newsletter Communications Day he would like to see some money from the $337 million Universal Service Obligation now operated by Telstra redirected to help support the initiative. But Telstra has a contract to operate the USO until 2032.
He has prepared a mammoth and very detailed 65-page report on the project. It can be found on Livson’s LinkedIn entry.