pie-in-the-sky or the future of wireless networks?
- Ruairi Glynn
- On January 31, 2006
Why put up costly cell-phone towers in thinly populated areas, when a few balloons would do? In North Dakota, former Gov. Ed Schafer is backing a plan to loft wireless network repeaters on balloons high above the state to fill gaps in cellular coverage. “I know it sounds crazy,” said Schafer, who now heads Extend America, a wireless telecommunications company. “But it works in the lab.”
The company behind this system, Space Data, has launched thousands of the free-floating balloons in Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Arkansas and New Mexico over the past year. The wireless data network they encompass tracks oil company vehicles and monitors the production of oil wells and pipelines,
“To cover every square mile of North Dakota, it would take 1,100 cell towers,” Schafer said. “We can do the whole state with three balloons.”
If successful, the hydrogen-filled balloons could be drifting across the stratosphere above North Dakota this summer, providing cellular coverage at a tiny fraction of the cost of building cellular towers. Up to 20 miles above the earth, well above commercial airliner pathways, steady stratospheric winds would push the latex balloons across the state at about 30 mph. Each balloon would deliver voice and data service to an area hundreds of miles in diameter.
“Nine balloons would always be in the air, with some going up, some going down, and some in the middle,” Schafer said.
The balloons swell from six feet in diameter to 30 feet after they gain altitude. Once a balloon leaves the state, its toaster-size communications pod would jettison, deploy a parachute and fall to earth, where it would signal its position.
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