AT&T is using an LTE-equipped drone to reconnect some Puerto Ricans who lost wireless service after Hurricane Maria.
This obviously isn’t a permanent fix for Puerto Rico, where 48 percent of cell sites are still out of service more than a month after the hurricane wrecked telecom infrastructure on the island. But the drone—AT&T calls it a Flying COW (Cell on Wings)—is providing wireless connectivity in an area of up to 40 square miles.
“As we work to permanently restore our network, this experimental technology is providing data, voice, and text services to customers,” AT&T said in an announcement today. “This is the first time an LTE cell site on a drone has been successfully deployed to connect residents after a disaster.”
Hovering 200 feet above the ground, the drone “can extend coverage farther than other temporary cell sites,” making it ideal for providing service in remote areas, AT&T said. The drone is deployed in the San Juan area right now, but AT&T said it will soon be relocated “to support additional areas, including the military hospital at Manati Coliseum.”
AT&T began using drones last year to inspect cell towers, and the company says they could be used to boost network coverage at large events.
More drones in testing
AT&T has only one such device in operation now, but the company told Ars that it is “testing additional drone models to add to the fleet.” One Flying COW can provide coverage to up to 8,000 people simultaneously, depending on equipment and network factors, AT&T told Ars. The drone is 7.5 feet in diameter and can stay in the air for an “extended amount of time,” AT&T said.
LTE drones “hold a lot of potential” for FirstNet, the nationwide public safety network that AT&T is building under a contract with the federal government. Besides temporarily connecting people on Puerto Rico, AT&T said the drone usage will help the company “assess how first responders can use the drone in the future.”
More than 30 percent of Puerto Ricans still lack service, but AT&T said its “teams are working around the clock to restore our network.”
The drone is just one of a few technologies AT&T is using for temporary connectivity in Puerto Rico. For example, the company is using portable satellite units at the bases of cell towers in areas where fiber lines connected to the towers haven’t yet been repaired.
The telecomm giant is also collaborating with Alphabet, which is using its balloon-powered network to provide emergency cellular service in Puerto Rico. AT&T has more details on its hurricane recovery efforts on this page.
Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai visited Puerto Rico this past weekend to assess hurricane recovery efforts. Pai has been under pressure from Democratic Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, who says the FCC should hold hearings on the recovery from storms in Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico and make a plan to ensure that “communities with damaged communications are not permanently relegated to the wrong side of the digital divide.”