Saturday, February 12, 2005

Your Next ISP is a Blimp

One thing about rural cellular phone service and all wireless broadband transmission is that the towers just never seem to be high enough to get the coverage you'd like. Why? Towers are expensive. The higher you go, the more expensive it gets. Just ask any television station owner. But think of the wireless coverage you could get with, say, a 65,000 foot antenna.

That 12 mile high antenna may be coming to your city soon thanks to a company called Sanswire Networks, a subsidiary of GlobeTel Communications Corp. No, this isn't one of those crazy ideas about tethering towers in space. Well, not yet anyway. What Sanswire's doing is re-inventing the airship. Oh, the humanity! Will we witness a re-enactment of the Hindenburg? Look out, Lakehurst!

Seriously, the Sanswire "Stratellite" is more like a cross between the Goodyear Blimp and the Solar Challenger, a solar powered ultra lightweight aircraft. One difference is that it is unmanned. The Stratellite will be filled with helium for lift, solar cells for power, and electric motors for mobility. It will climb to an altitude of 55,000 to 65,000 feet and hover there for a year and a half at a time. This altitude is above the air lanes and nearly all weather and is called the stratosphere. Hence, the idea for the name Stratellite. It's a cross between stratosphere and satellite.

So why not use a real satellite in space instead of a blimp with a radio transmitter? Cost is one big reason. A Stratellite will cost half the price of an Earth orbiting satellite or less. Plus, when it needs servicing, it will be commanded to land for refurbishing while another Stratellite takes its place. Orbiting satellites turn into meteors and burn up in the atmosphere when they need to decommissioned.

Another big consideration is latency. At 65,000 feet, there is very little latency or time delay due to the speed of radio wave transmission, which is 186,000 miles per second. Low Earth orbiting satellites also work well for telephone service, but you need a lot of them since they zip past any given location in a matter of minutes. Geosynchronous satellites, the ones that stay put, are 22,241 miles out there. That's a time delay of around 120 milliseconds for a signal to get there and just as long to come back, or a bare minimum of 240 milliseconds latency without considering any equipment. This is why satellite Internet services haven't worked well for VoIP phone. The latency is just too long. Each party has to wait to talk, like with a walkie-talkie.

A Stratellite, however, would be perfect as a virtual cell tower, paging service, WiMax transmitter, or the world's greatest WiFi hotspot. Just one could cover an area about the size of Texas. They can be parked in place using GPS receivers to know and hold their position.

How soon before we start enjoying Internet via blimp? The first Stratellites are expected to go into service this year, perhaps within the next few months. If the technology proves to be as promising as it seems, Stratellites could be hovering over all the world's major cities soon. Wait a second. Isn't that how the movie Independence Day opened?

Follow Telexplainer on Twitter