Super Bowl 2016
AT&T says mobile backhaul at stadiums is no longer good enough, so hovering drones are needed to give fans enough mobile data during eventsReuters

US mobile operator AT&T has come up with an innovative way to deal with the struggle to provide enough wireless data are large venue events to please customers – fly drones over the stadium to boost coverage.

Trying to provide a decent wireless coverage in large venues like stadiums and concert halls has long been a struggle for mobile operators, but it was thought that small cell mobile backhaul solutions mounted around the stadium on lighting poles were solving the problem.

However, use of mobile data continues to explode as more and more consumers have increasingly powerful smartphones and tablets that they are taking to events and using to take photos and stream HD video to social media networks, and with 5G yet to be defined by mobile standards bodies, the current solution just isn't good enough anymore.

AT&T says that back in 2011, American football fans used a total of 177GB of mobile data while watching the Super Bowl on the mobile operator's in-stadium network, but in early 2016, mobile data demand has exploded, with fans using a total of 5.2TB of data throughout the season.

To solve this problem, the mobile operator says that drones known as "Flying Cell on Wings (COWs)" could make all the difference. The idea would be that the drone would be tethered to the ground so they would hover in one place, sort of like a portable hovering small cell.

At the moment, AT&T deals with crowded venues that need more capacity by deploying portable mobile sites in trucks that have antenna towers mounted on them, and it had to deploy nine trucks in the San Francisco Bay Area in the spring during the Super Bowl season.

Drones can send large amounts of data in real time

The drones would be tethered to the ground in order to make sure that they can't fly away, but they would be hovering perhaps just under the roofline of the stadium. AT&T is currently testing how drones can improve its services and it is trialling a range of drones from a variety of manufacturers to see how they perform.

"We're already using drones to perform aerial inspections of our cell towers...connecting drones to our nationwide LTE network lets us capture data and feed it directly to our systems. In turn, this can allow us to make changes to our network in real time," AT&T's chief strategy officer and group president of AT&T Technology and operations John Donovan wrote in a blog post.

"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. We anticipate this will allow us to improve our customers' experience by enhancing our cell sites faster than ever before."

AT&T said is also looking at how in-flight drones could be used to send large amounts of data in real-time, which could have huge benefits for people who need to use mobile data in a variety of industries including farming, delivery services, insurance and even facility and asset inspections.