The Bottom Line

HAPS: Closing Future Broadband Coverage Gaps?

In the digital age, fair access to dependable broadband services remains a pressing concern, particularly in rural and low-density areas. High-Altitude Platforms (HAPs) appear as a potential options as telecom providers attempt to overcome the digital divide. But how should these businesses choose which solution is the best?

NSR’s High Altitude Platform, 5th Edition report forecasts the HAPs will generate a $5B market opportunity through manufacturing and service deployment for communications, remote sensing, and other applications. It highlights a unique concept of operations driven by improvements and innovation for operators and manufacturers and they move from deploying units into commercialized architectures. The growth in the HAPs units is expected to show a staggering 22.8% CAGR, with 1,710 airships, pseudo satellites, and balloons deployed over the 2022-2023 period.

Satellites vs. HAPs: Choosing Wisely

Satellites, particularly Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites have gained popularity due to their global coverage, low latency, and improved performance. Some established players like SpaceX, and OneWeb are already out there selling capacity at a rapid pace through partnerships and strategic agreements, notably with terrestrial MNOs. Despite this growth, LEO satellites still have remaining challenges such as shorter lifetime, high CAPEX and complex in-orbit operations. Even if latency is reduced in comparison to GEO, it remains a relative weakness when compared to terrestrial broadband sources. Furthermore, securing worldwide frequency sharing and operating licenses continues to be difficult regulatory challenge.

HAPs, on the other hand, offer a fresh approach of delivering broadband. Because of their proximity, HAPs could potentially operate as an alternate version of cell towers as “towers in the sky”, enabling operators to deploy and perform maintenance at a faster pace, while addressing the speedy demands of terrestrial operators and their consumers. Companies like SoftBank’s HAPSMobile are deploying solar-powered unmanned aircraft, while players like Sceye and Thales Alenia Space are deploying Airships with the support of governments to bring Internet connectivity to low density and rural areas around the world.

However, HAPs, like satellites, face problems. They have a narrower coverage area than satellites, and their usefulness can potentially be hampered by bad weather. Aviation restrictions also apply, and because HAPs are still a relatively new technology, there are significant technical and logistical hurdles that must be overcome as more missions’ deployments take place in the coming years.

So, for telecom operators, what is the pick between satellites and HAPs for intermediate-density internet coverage, where there’s gaps in available connectivity solutions? The selection is influenced by several criteria, including the area’s distinctive geographical and demographic character, availability of diversified service offering, and scalability of the architecture. In regions with challenging topographies such as islands or mountainous areas, satellites might offer a more feasible solution due to their broad coverage. In areas with predictable weather conditions and less stringent aviation rules, HAPs could provide a more cost-effective and flexible alternative. From a strategic standpoint, operators with larger budgets and a global market reach may align more closely with satellite solutions. In contrast, companies targeting specific regions or countries may prefer HAPs for their cost-effectiveness and adaptability.

The Bottom Line

Even though strides have been made due to technological advancements, there is no one-size-fits-all solution when choosing between satellites and HAPs for providing broadband coverage in intermediate-density areas. Telecom operators must undertake rigorous feasibility studies, considering the unique requirements and constraints of their target regions. As the competition between satellites and HAPs intensifies, we edge closer to a world where broadband connectivity is universal, driving forward both technological innovation and societal inclusivity, and HAPS may just be a logical choice to take us there.