Helium-filled balloons outfitted with wireless repeaters could be the answer to better voice and data coverage in rural and underserved areas, beefed-up communications during emergencies and a preferred solution to spending millions on towers if a trial in North Dakota goes as planned.

Chandler, Ariz.-based Space Data Corp. will soon test its latex communications balloons with Extend America, a North Dakota fixed broadband provider and former Sprint Nextel iDEN affiliate. The companies plan a March trial, as of press time.

Former governor of North Dakota Ed Schafer, who heads Extend America, has said the technology could be the solution to the many dead spots across the state, a problem that will be exacerbated when some carriers decide it doesn't make economical sense to keep offering analog services. The FCC is allowing commercial operators to sunset their analog networks in 2008, which could leave about 42 million analog subscribers — including public users who rely on cellular to augment their land mobile radio communications — without service.

“Extend America's purpose is to bring telecom services into rural areas, and terrestrial towers are too expensive,” said a spokesman for Extend America. “Once it proves out, we hope to launch throughout the state of North Dakota. The entire state … is looking at it with interest because they can finally connect all of their people, including emergency response and highway patrol, on one ubiquitous network.”

Three balloons would cover the entire state of North Dakota as compared with 1200 cell phone towers necessary to provide comparable service. According to Space Data, the financial difference is between spending $200 million on towers or $10 million on SkySite balloons.

The balloon technology already is in use for narrowband data operations in Arkansas, Louisiana, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas for applications such as tracking oil company vehicles and monitoring the production of oil wells and pipelines. The SkySite Network provides wide-area data communications coverage using the ReFLEX 2.7 two-way packet data communications protocol. It consists of high-altitude, balloon-borne transceivers known as SkySite Platforms, which are launched every eight to 12 hours (MRT, December 2005).

Each SkySite Platform rises to an altitude of 60,000 to 100,000 feet. At that altitude, a coverage circle of 420 miles in diameter can be achieved. The company also is pushing the network as a replacement for CDPD, which is being phased out by commercial wireless carriers.

Space Data launches its balloons between 12 miles and 62 miles above sea level — well above the path of commercial airliners. Once in place, the balloons push the range of existing line-of-site radio communications from about 10 miles to more than 400 miles.

Stratospheric winds push the balloons at about 30 miles per hour, allowing service delivery for hundreds of miles in diameter. After gaining altitude, the balloons would swell from 6 feet in diameter to 30 feet. Once a balloon leaves the state, its communications pod would jettison, deploy a parachute and fall to earth, where it would signal its position via GPS.

Space Data farms out the recovery process to third parties and then launches the refurbished balloons again. For the most part, according to Space Date, the balloons and their radio equipment can be re-used repeatedly unless damaged during landings.

Mark Davis, Space Data's vice president of marketing, said the business model is cost-effective because it is sensitive to the recovery rate. “It's cost-effective if you can achieve the minimum level of recovery,” he said. Luckily, Space Data has a close to 90% recovery rate.

Those who would dismiss the concept out of hand should consider this: Last September, the U.S. Air Force awarded Space Data a $1.4 million contract to participate in the 2006 Joint Expeditionary Force Experiment (JEFX) — a land, sea, and air event that tests the latest war-fighting technologies. JEFX events are held every two years.

For public safety, the network is ready to go now, Davis said. Space Data can provide wide-area roaming services that pick up where emergency networks leave off, as well as wireless access that can remain available when terrestrial networks are overloaded. And the company is able to lease licensed FCC spectrum in the 900 MHz band in the event that a private network needs additional spectrum during an emergency. Space Data claims it can extend private terrestrial radio links by 400 miles.

“We did deploy the service for [Hurricane] Katrina, and we can demonstrate that we can provide payload and coverage during hurricanes; we just couldn't get the business end of the deal done,” Davis said.

Ben Holycross, radio systems manager with Polk County, Fla., who was in the trenches restoring communications in Mississippi after Katrina blew through, said he isn't surprised Space Data didn't get a lot of business traction during the storm's aftermath. “When the chips are down, people tend to stick with what they know,” he said.

However, he believes the concept offered by Space Data can offer relief during disasters. “After Katrina, the available satellite channels were overloaded, and the Space Data system may have been able to provide some relief,” Holycross said. “For it to be of value, they need to determine where their service would be used and work with the agencies involved to be included in prior planning and training.”

Charles Werner, chief of the Charlottesville (Va.) Fire Department and a member of the SAFECOM advisory committee, has heard about Space Data's idea, but hasn't investigated the concept in-depth. “I'd have to see it to believe it as a long-term solution,” Werner said. “I think it definitely offers a solution short-term, like Katrina deployments. Personally, I believe that we must look at every possible solution to explore its effectiveness, viability and cost.”

Despite the skepticism, the U.S. Border Patrol that monitors the border between North Dakota and Canada has expressed interest, Wilson said.

Space Data has received little analyst attention. Davis believes it's because the company's “prove-it threshold is a bit higher than most, given the uniqueness of our approach.”

But the trial with Extend America could lead to bigger things. If all goes well, Extend America will likely look beyond North Dakota to set up a ubiquitous network across the rural parts of several other states. Space Data hasn't proved in a commercial setting that the balloon technology works for cellular voice, a more complex application that will require additional research and development

“For the military, it's just a repeater and an outdoor application. The data rate isn't that high necessarily,” Davis said. “In cellular, you get into all sorts of factors like signal-to-noise ratio and cellular building penetration.”

Space Data's ability to forge partnerships with commercial carriers could open the door to public safety. For instance, Sprint Nextel is becoming more entrenched in the first responder sector as many public-safety agencies already are using the carrier's Direct Connect push-to-talk (P2T) service as a secondary network for non-mission-critical communications. Sprint Nextel's P2T network also is the primary communications system for some small public-safety agencies and military posts.

“We've worked with public safety before, providing Internet service and Nextel equipment,” Wilson said.

Still, public-safety and commercial carriers have divergent needs. As it stands now, the role commercial services will play in public safety depends on funding. To penetrate the first-responder community, commercial operators must make investments contrary to their own commercial interests or find public-safety entities willing to invest to expand coverage where it's not economically feasible for commercial carriers to do so.

Davis said Space Data is open to a number of business arrangements with carriers and public safety. Most likely, the prevalent business model would be based on the well-established roaming partner model that entails charging operators a per-minute price for subscribers who are roaming on the SkySite network. Another scenario could involve a governmental agency paying Space Data to operate a network in a given area for use by personnel using specific types of radios in specific frequency bands.