AT&T wants to solve your concert connectivity woes with LTE-equipped drones

Concerts are notoriously congested venues not only in terms of human traffic, but in terms of mobile data, too. It’s tough to lock a cell signal when all those people standing around you are trying to do the same, and that can be a recipe for disaster: during the Seahawks Super Bowl parade in February of 2014, the city of Seattle was forced to send out alerts when hundreds of thousands of smartphone users caused local 911 networks to become unreachable. It’s the sort of nightmare scenario that phone carriers want to avoid, obviously, and why AT&T is experimenting with a system of drones capable of mitigating data overload.

AT&T’s no stranger to data traffic jams. Its current crop of mobile cell sites, trucks with massive, mounted antennas, handled more than 177 gigabytes during the 2011 Super Bowl. In 2016, they delivered 5.2 terabytes — traffic volume equivalent to more than 1.6 million photos.

AT&T’s alternative involves a network of drones hovering above event or concert attendees and delivering wireless connectivity down from above. Such a system, said the carrier in a press release, could “temporarily provide enhanced LTE wireless [network] at the packed [event].” And it would also be robust: the proposed mesh could handle “simultaneous … photos and videos” without affecting concertgoers’ ability to reach friends, loved ones, or emergency services, AT&T said.

It’s a purely mental exercise, at this point — AT&T said its drone-based network “isn’t a reality yet.” But the carrier is making inroads. This year, it launched the trial phase of a national drone program focused on “drone-based solutions,” and deployed drones capable of inspecting cell towers and making fine-grain network adjustments on the fly.  “By using drones to inspect a cell site, we’re able to conduct inspections more quickly and safely — and even access parts of a tower that a human simply could not,” AT&T said. “We expect our experience will lay the foundation for new, exciting drone applications.”

One of those applications is disaster response. AT&T’s pursuing the use of what it calls “Flying COWs,” or “cells on wings,” in areas inaccessible to vehicles. They’d fly relatively close to the ground — “just under the roofline of stadiums or buildings,” Art Pregler, the program’s director, told Market Watch — and provide mobile LTE coverage where needed.

It might be a while before LTE-equipped quadcopters begin making regular concerts appearances, but the FAA’s decision in June to legalize drones for commercial uses will likely accelerate the AT&T’s efforts. Who knows: next time you find yourself at a Kaskade concert, it may be a drone, not an angel, that’s on your shoulder.

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