Providing modern services to rural markets can be a difficult challenge. Rural markets are often left behind when advances in technology prove prohibitively expensive to deploy in areas where populations are not dense enough to provide a return on investment.
Ten years ago, MIT graduate Ben Glass decided to take on the rural market challenge by using existing technology in an innovative way to bring affordable energy to markets that traditionally relied on expensive diesel generators. That initiative launched a journey that eventually pivoted into the wireless industry with the goal of providing connectivity in rural markets.
“There’s less innovation targeting the unique challenges of the rural market because it’s oftentimes harder to address those challenges, but that doesn’t mean they are any less important,” said Glass, CEO and CTO of Somerville, Massachusetts-based Altaeros. “Part of what motivates me and what motivates the team is trying to provide equal opportunities and equal services in markets that historically haven’t had them, or where it’s more challenging to provide modern connectivity and modern services.”
From a very young age, Glass was interested in the skies. He wanted to be a rocket scientist as a child, and he stuck closely to those aspirations by studying aerospace engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. While there, he also gained experience working with Space Exploration Technologies and Tesla, which taught him how to use innovation as a tool to solve challenging problems, he said.
It was during his time at MIT that Glass started a free-time project that would eventually become Altaeros. He was interested in the idea of using an airborne platform to generate wind energy for rural and underserved communities.
“I thought if we could harness the high-altitude wind resource and provide a viable lower cost source of energy for those communities, it would be a really exciting project,” said Glass.
He partnered with Adam Rein, who was finishing a dual program at MIT’s Sloan Business School and Harvard’s Kennedy School, to co-found Altaeros in 2010, with the goal of commercializing an airborne wind turbine. But market conditions changed four years into their venture, and the company was forced to adapt. In 2014, the price of oil plummeted, making traditional energy sources cheaper to deliver to rural markets and effectively erasing the competitive advantage the company had built in those areas.
At the same time, however, the demand for data connectivity was skyrocketing, and once again, rural markets were being left in the dust. Glass and the Altaeros team saw this trend as an opportunity to pivot their business while maintaining a core focus on bringing technology to underserved markets.
“We realized that the core technology that we’d developed for the airborne wind turbine – which was really just a better, more reliable, more cost-effective aerial platform for lifting a heavy payload — could provide a really great solution to bringing modern connectivity to those same communities we were trying to bring energy to but that needed connectivity just as badly as they needed energy,” said Glass. “Those two factors led us to shift the focus of the business onto the challenge of providing connectivity to the folks who need it the most.”
Pivoting a business can be difficult, but for Glass, it was a proud moment because the company managed to make a significant shift in its business without losing people and while maintaining the company’s core passion for taking on the difficult challenges associated with bringing services to rural markets.
“How do we have the biggest impact for people in rural communities, to provide basic building blocks for them to live a modern life? Energy is an obvious basic building block, but more and more, connectivity is also a basic building block,” he said. “Through that pivot we were able to stay very excited about the potential impact we could have.”
The result of its new focus was the SuperTower – a tethered helium-filled blimp, or aerostat, that carries radio transmission equipment and is connected to the ground with optical fiber and power conductors. Aerostats have been used for decades, primarily by the military, but historically have required crews of 10 or more people to launch and operate. By adding modern controls and automation features, Altaeros created an airborne solution that eliminates much of the need for always-available crews and makes launching and operating the platform quick and simple. The solution is monitored remotely and has a variety of features incorporated, including the ability to autonomously dock in case of a puncture, a broken tether or a severe weather event.
“We named the product the SuperTower because you can think of it as another type of tower,” said Glass. “If you look at what a site looks like from the perspective of our customers, they’ve got the same sort of radio antennas that you put on a steel tower, but in this case mounted to the belly of the Aerostat. And those radios communicate over the optical fiber to the baseband on the ground. The setup is pretty much identical to a regular tower, which makes it very easy for our customers to integrate into their networks.”
Each SuperTower lifts radio and antenna equipment to 800 feet or more above ground level, providing coverage of up to 30 miles depending on terrain, said Glass. Initial SuperTower products are designed to work with one carrier, although the company is working to introduce multi-tenant capability to the platform for permanent installations targeted at LTE/5G service, industrial and agricultural IoT, fixed wireless, public safety, environmental monitoring and more. The company also has developed a smaller, portable system designed to provide coverage and capacity temporarily for crisis response.
“Rural markets tend to be coverage constrained, not capacity constrained,” said Glass. “The challenge is how to get that usable signal over a large area where homes and users are more spread out. One of the ways you can do that is by lifting your radios and antennas much higher, so you have a clear line of site over a much larger area. By reducing the cost per subscriber covered, we’re able to really shift the economics in the rural market so that they can become profitable and solve the economic challenge needed to justify investing in that market.”
Glass views the SuperTower as a complementary solution to traditional tower infrastructure. In addition to providing a solution for areas where steel towers are not an economically viable solution, the SuperTower also could fit in with a mix of solutions that will be needed to provide 5G, including macro towers and small cells, he said.
“I envision a network architecture where we’re utilized to provide a very broad coverage layer in the most economical way possible and where the capacity is really needed you would have a focused deployment of a small cells to offtake the higher capacity needs,” said Glass. “One of the nice things about building that way is that you’re no longer guessing where the capacity needs are. By building out the coverage layer and leveraging the data you are generating from providing that coverage layer, you know exactly where the points of additional capacity are needed.”
While it works to educate the industry and potential clients about the SuperTower and its potential benefits, Altaeros remains focused on innovation as a tool to solve difficult challenges. Thinking outside the box is a core value that Glass has successfully integrated into the day-to-day operations of Altaeros.
“If the problems were easy to solve, they would have been solved by now,” said Glass. “Just the fact that the digital divide is so persistent, and these problems continue to persist in these areas and rural markets, almost by definition means that if we’re to solve it we have to take an innovative approach. There are a lot of challenges like that where you really have to think outside the box and come up with an innovative solution to truly solve it. We’ve got an amazing team that’s really excited about all these big challenges, and when you’ve got a team like that, the innovations come easily. It’s the exciting part that everybody gets and what brings everybody to work every day.”