It’s hard to get excited about 5G. But an AT&T drone with an endearing acronym might make naysayers change their minds.
Since 2018, telecom evangelists and heavy corporate marketing have been preaching the 5G revolution like it’s the advent of a messiah: Life-altering high-speed downloads are just around the corner. Your unwavering devotion to that expensive service plan will be rewarded.
But the revolution hasn’t come…yet. 5G followers — aka those with a 5G service plan — have been drinking the Kool-Aid only to wake up to the same download speeds and latency as before. T-Mobile has been leading the charge over competitors Verizon and AT&T, but even the 5G frontrunner has limited availability, which makes for underwhelming results. That’s not to say the 5G revolution won’t happen, but the public was promised almost instantaneous speeds and rock-bottom latency and so far, it’s been more of a slow burn rather than a fire-and-brimstone upheaval.
What’s more, much of the 5G hype revolves around its potential to take the “internet of things” to the next level: Autonomous vehicles that talk to each other! Doctors performing surgery remotely! Even more immersive VR! However, what’s often missing from the 5G conversation is the less glamorous, but arguably more transformative revolution of fair and equal access to high-speed broadband regardless of socioeconomic status or location.
This past June, AT&T took an imaginative step towards making that a reality by flying a drone that transmits 5G. In a remote field in Missouri, the telecom giant launched one of its Flying COWs — a tethered drone whose cutesy name is an acronym for “Cell on Wings.” According to the company, the area had a weak, intermittent LTE signal prior to the drone’s launch.
“We flew the drone up to about 300 feet, turned on the signal and it began transmitting strong 5G coverage to approximately 10 square miles,” said Ethan Hunt, AT&T’s principal technical program manager.
Cows meet the Flying COW.
The successful launch of the 5G Flying COW means AT&T has the opportunity to make high-speed internet more accessible to millions of Americans, especially those living in rural or underserved markets. It’s also a way for AT&T to get a leg up on its competition since it lags behind T-Mobile and Verizon in terms of 5G coverage and quality. The use of drones not only fills gaps in coverage, but accelerates the transition to 5G in areas that are often left behind in technological advancements.
When COWs fly
AT&T’s drone program has already been operational with LTE connectivity for years. It’s part of a fleet of devices that are deployed to provide service in the aftermath of disasters. AT&T also runs FirstNet, an emergency response network for first responders and public safety agencies which has been deploying these Flying COWs since 2019.
Art Pregler, director of AT&T’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) program, said the company already has Flying COWs strategically located in regions around the country where natural disasters are common such as the Southeast for hurricanes, the West for wildfires, and the Midwest for floods. And since the program’s June launch, AT&T’s Network Disaster Recovery fleet is being upgraded to support 5G, which means faster and more powerful connectivity for first responders, search-and-rescue missions, and people who lose power in emergency situations.
Flying COWs are also used by FirstNet, AT&T’s emergency response network.
This program isn’t unique to AT&T. Other carriers have emergency recovery programs, too, which also have kitschy names for their vehicles. T-Mobile has a fleet of trucks, RVs, and COW-equipped satellites (Cell on Wheels) and generators that provide LTE and 5G coverage. And then there’s Verizon’s uber-macho THOR (Tactical Humanitarian Operations Response), a mobile command center with 5G ultra-wideband. (Hammer not included.)
But, according to Pregler, AT&T is the only carrier to regularly use 5G drones to fill coverage gaps beyond adhoc and emergency response applications. “Manually deployed Flying COWs are a regular part of AT&T’s existing service,” he said.
“Manual” is the operative word here. The Flying COWs in use are tethered drones that are piloted by people and stay up for about 24 hours at time. Pregler said they could even stay up for 16 days at a time, provided the drones pass the regular 24-hour safety check. Additionally, according to current Federal Aviation Association regulations, Pregler said pilots are required to operate drones “in most commercial applications,” so you don’t have to worry about a civvie sending one of AT&T’s COWs crashing into your home or car or… a human being.
Pregler’s goal is to someday soon have autonomous Flying COWs become a part of AT&T’s consumer-facing service — if they can successfully overcome current technical, economic, and regulatory challenges pertaining to automation and autonomy. These drones would be VTOL (vertical takeoff and landing) fixed-wing, high-altitude drones that collect solar energy and could fly for months at a time.
“In the future, I see the network autonomously determining where connectivity gaps require temporary Flying COW service. In the future, I see the network automatically dispatching autonomous Flying COWs to fill those gaps,” he said.
Pregler and his team are also testing flying tethered and untethered drones from Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) locations. This would allow pilots to operate flying drones remotely from a safe location in the event of a hurricane, tornado, or wildfire, and keep drones running 24 hours a day with crews in the same area taking shifts.
The 5G hype paradox
There is one caveat to note with AT&T’s Flying COWs: They only provide low-band and mid-band 5G service, both of which offer speeds on the lower end of the 5G spectrum. But since high-band, or mmWave, has a limited range of about 500 meters, it doesn’t make much sense to add support for that super-fast network to a high-flying 5G drone.
Yes, there are actually different “types” of 5G and therein lies the current issue with 5G hype. Let’s take a brief interlude to explain:
Low-band 5G (2GHz): Operates on the lowest frequency (i.e., below 2GHz), which means it’s the slowest but extends the farthest. It’s not much faster than 4G.
Mid-band 5G (2-10GHz): Operates on a higher frequency, which means it’s faster than low-band but has less range.
High-band 5G (20-100GHz): This is the Lamborghini of mobile networks. High-band (aka mmWave) is the one everyone is referring to when they talk about the 5G revolution. Even though it has the shortest reach, mmWave’s speed and low latency far surpass its literal shortcomings.
By weaving together these three different types, the idea is to provide a blanket of 5G coverage wherever you are. Theoretically, that means downloads speeds of up to 20Gbps and latency as low as 1ms (millisecond) compared to 4G LTE’s 1Gbps download speed and 50ms of latency.
Recently, Mashable’s sibling site PCMag tested AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon’s 5G coverage, and AT&T was unambiguously ranked last while T-Mobile was the best. But regardless of the carrier, if you’re on a 5G plan, you’ve likely seen the 5G icon on your phone and have been disappointed by the results. That’s because right now this “blanket” of coverage is more like a hand towel. There are multiple reasons why this is the case, but as The Verge points out, it mostly boils down to limited infrastructure, the need for more testing, and Federal Communications Commission regulations.
So while Flying COWs can provide gaps in network coverage, that coverage might not offer the same supersonic speed that’s rolling out in high-traffic areas. This brings us to the digital divide.
The digital divide
According to a 2021 post from the Federal Communications Commission, 97 percent of Americans have access to high-speed fixed service in urban areas, but only 65 percent in rural areas and 60 percent on Tribal lands. A report from the United States Department of Agriculture pegs that number at 72 percent of rural residents and 63 percent in persistent poverty with moderate or high-speed broadband available. This is compared to the national statistic of 90 percent. Despite some variance, the message is clear: Whether it’s cost, access, or both, millions of Americans in rural areas lack reliable broadband.
AT&T’s drones could provide 5G coverage to previously inaccessible areas.
Credit: Getty Images
With less customers in rural areas, carriers don’t have as much incentive to build out infrastructure and, even when they do, it’s too costly for many people to afford. That’s also why many people in major urban areas don’t have reliable broadband. According to a report from Ars Technica, a Seattle couple recently encountered this issue when they bought a house only to discover it was never wired for Comcast and would cost them $27,000 to install the necessary underground cable. Now, they’re forced to rely on a 4G hotspot. So you can see where AT&T’s Flying COW program could have its merits.
In the “before times,” affordability and access to broadband was already an issue. And when the pandemic drove everything and everyone online, it only deepened that digital divide, underscoring how critical broadband access is to people’s livelihood and their children’s education. In 2020, The New York Times reported instances of kids who live in rural “dead zones” using public WiFi in McDonald’s parking lots in order to attend virtual class.
The pandemic had a profound impact on those without reliable and affordable broadband access.
Credit: Getty Images
As the USDA noted in its broadband report, households that can’t afford internet access or high-speed internet access “may be less resilient to personal and economic stresses during the pandemic.” In other words, those without means don’t get to participate in the freedom and flexibility offered by remote work and education. Recognizing the magnitude of the issue, Congress stepped up to allocate billions of dollars for broadband relief during the pandemic and the bipartisan $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill has committed billions more for building more broadband access and subsidizing costs. But considering the internet has been declared a human right by the United Nations, there’s much more work to be done.
Compared to building miles of cable connections, 5G is easy to deploy, cost-effective, and exponentially faster and lower latency than 4G/LTE. Add that technology to a flying vehicle with minimal overhead that can access hard-to-reach places and you’ve got a pretty powerful combination.
Not quite uncharted territory
AT&T isn’t the only one to explore broadband alternatives. Google’s project Loon tried to tackle this issue of the digital divide with high-altitude balloons that transmitted WiFi. It hit some noteworthy milestones that advanced the cause, including achieving a stable connection of 155 megabits per second more than 62 miles apart and clocking one million hours of stratospheric flight. But, ultimately, the Alphabet subsidiary folded because it couldn’t become commercially viable.
There’s also Starlink, Elon Musk’s SpaceX initiative which provides internet from satellites orbiting the planet. As of June 2022, Musk said the service has nearly 500,000 subscribers in 32 different countries. But Starlink’s download speeds have been reportedly slowing and its $110 a month subscription charge (plus $599 initial equipment cost) isn’t affordable for many.
“We’re the only one that has this type of solution that’s operational.”
Other telecom companies are also working with drones. T-Mobile unveiled The Tech Experience 5G Hub, a 24,000 square foot facility that includes “a dedicated indoor drone flight space,” said a spokesperson.
At the moment, AT&T claims it’s the only carrier already using the tech out in the field. “We’re the only one that has this type of solution that’s operational,” said Pregler. “There have been other carriers that have explored the solution and used it in a test environment. But I’m not aware of any that have been operational with it.”
AT&T’s Flying COWs are already in the field.
You may have previously heard about drones that operate on the 5G network. For example, T-Mobile’s venture capital fund T-Mobile Ventures has invested and partnered with the Drone Racing League and launched its first 5G-enabled racing drone in 2021. Pregler said AT&T’s approach is different.
“Those are drones using the 5G network for command and control or using the 5G network to stream video,” he said. “So, they are essentially customers or IoT devices on the 5G network. In contrast, our solution is providing that connectivity. Our drone is the network as opposed to a user of the network.”
Verizon didn’t respond to Mashable’s several requests for comment about its plans to bridge the digital divide with drone tech.
Expect some turbulence
The success of AT&T’s Flying COW program could prove to be a big advancement for 5G connectivity, but it will take some time until the program can fully stretch its wings. For one, Pregler said they’re “at least a year away” from launching high-altitude untethered drones.
It’s much more complex to involve flying high-altitude drones in non-emergency situations that meet FAA regulations. “There’s a lot more that’s imposed that we have to contend with,” said Pregler. “So we may not be able to fly at the exact location we want or the exact altitude, or bring the particular drone that we want to bring. But we work within the rules.”
Also, the Flying COW can currently beam 5G to standard mobile devices and IoT devices, but not fixed wireless locations, meaning homes and offices. While mobile 5G access in rural areas is definitely a big deal, 5G FWA (fixed wireless access) will be the true game changer. Unfortunately, consumers straddling the digital divide will have to wait as AT&T has no current plans to use Flying COWs for 5G FWA.
Will the 5G Flying COW be enough to leapfrog AT&T over its competition? And will it eventually help bridge the digital divide? It’s a lofty goal, but AT&T is, quite literally, rising to the challenge.