Friday, February 10, 2006

Cellular Service Goes Up, Up and Away

You can get a pretty good idea on the availability of cell phone service in a particular area just by counting the silver spires sporting panel antennas. Some cities have forests of steel trees, and buildings that do double duty as brick and mortar cell towers. But not in North Dakota. It's just too rugged with too few people per mile to justify the cost of putting up a quarter million dollar cellular base station in many places. What to do? Send in the balloons!

A new and novel approach to wireless phone coverage is the balloon-borne flying cell tower. It's not really a tower at all. Actually it's an electronic pack the size of a toaster. They are easily lofted by 6 foot balloons, much like the radiosondes that weather stations have used to measure the atmosphere since the 1930's. At altitudes of 100,000 feet, they are well above the airlanes and will coast across the state at 30 miles an hour or so. Essentially you get a 100,000 foot cell tower without 20 miles worth of steel and the land it would take for all those guy wires. At that height, you only need 3 base stations to cover the state. Of course those are moving base stations, so you need to keep 9 balloons in the air at all times. Some will be going up, some coming down and others drifting across the sky.

So just who is coming up with this idea? It's a joint project between Extend America, a North Dakota Wireless Internet Service Provider and Space Data Corporation of Chandler, Arizona. Space Data has actually been using a system of this type to track oil company vehicles and monitor oil wells in Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Arkansas and New Mexico. They've launched thousands of balloons with electronic packages over the last year in all types of weather.

How soon can we expect to know if mobile relays in the stratosphere will work for North Dakota? As soon as this summer, with tests underway anytime now.

If all this sounds vaguely familiar, you may remember I wrote about a similar system in development called the Stratellite by GlobeTel Communications. One difference is that Stratellites are based on dirigibles that can be maneuvered, rather than free floating balloons. A Stratellite has small electric driven propellers and solar cells for power so it can hover in place to transmit wireless broadband Internet and cell phone signals.

Yet another approach uses low orbiting satellites to provide cellular service from above. Iridium has just such a constellation available, but satellite phones are expensive and much larger than the little flip phones we like to keep in our pockets.

Telecommunications services got their start by burrowing in the ground to get from place to place using copper wires. Those wires are being replaced in some cases by buried fiber optic cables with higher capacity, but more and more by wireless cell towers. Mobility and the demand for coverage everywhere are helping the next generation of cellular stations get off the ground, literally. Perhaps in wireless communications, the sky really is the limit.

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