Near-space wireless firm Space Data today announced it was awarded a five-year, $49 million U.S. Air Force contract to provide communications via base stations attached to the company’s balloons, which ascend to 65,000 to 135,000 feet above the earth.

“This is big news for Space Data,” the company’s chairman and CEO, Gerald Knoblach, said in an interview with MRT. “This is the first Air Force contract that would lead to deployments. … In the past, it’s been set up for R&D contracts.”

Indeed, the Air Force spent two years testing the Space Data system in conjunction with the Space Command wing of Kirtland Air Force Base in New Mexico before awarding the contract. The tests revealed that Space Data’s balloon-borne payloads could extend voice and data communications more than 400 miles—40 times the coverage range of terrestrial-based systems.

Space Data uses weather balloons to lift radio base stations into near space, which is well above weather systems and is characterized by very predictable wind patterns. With minimal obstructions to the near-space base station, regular terrestrial-system handsets—the tests used the same tactical radios carried by troops in Iraq and Afghanistan—can be used to enable communications where infrastructure is not available.

“What the Air Force is looking for is something that is very responsive, both timewise and geographicwise, so you can change things,” Knoblach said. “Satellites basically aren’t that adaptable, because once you launch them, you can’t touch the hardware anymore. ... With our system, if you want to fly a different frequency range tomorrow, you launch it, so it’s a lot more flexible.”

While the Air Force contract is Space Data’s first government deal, a commercial version of the company’s technology called SkySite has provided digital communications to the energy industry in the southwest United States for more than two years. Space Data also is conducting trials with cellular carriers in the northwest United States to enhance coverage in rural areas.