Turning balloons into towers
Here is a why-didn’t-I-think-of-that: Attach wireless repeaters to modified industrial weather balloons.
They could compete with or integrate with terrestrial wireless tower networks, and minimize many of the environmental, costs, and line-of-sight problems that the tower industry faces while expanding coverage exponentially.
But wait, a lot of people have thought of that. While the concept of using weather balloons rather than towers to provide communications has been around for years, it has been limited by Newton’s law, as well as dangers to aircraft.
Equipment has been simply too heavy to make the concept feasible and heavy enough to bring down an airliner full of people. But at least one company – Space Data Corporation – believes that it is feasible and the industry may soon see if this is a harebrained idea or ingenious.
Space Data Corp. has been working on the idea for years. If the Chandler, Ariz., company can drum up the investment capital it needs to keep pushing the boundaries of its technology and its geographic scope, it hopes to demonstrate its commercial capabilities over the next year or so, delivering telemetric information, data and voice.
The company says its SkySite technology is an efficient, yet inexpensive way to provide communications services to remote areas since 70 percent of the continental United States is beyond the reach of wireless towers.
Combining low-cost, advanced microelectronics with small, expendable, biodegradable latex weather balloons, Space Data is creating a network of SkySites that will operate at about 100,000 feet above the earth’s surface to work cooperatively with terrestrial networks, provide seamless, uninterrupted nationwide coverage and operate with existing user equipment.
All of the United States and most of the world’s landmass is in line-of-sight of weather balloons at 100,000 feet above the earth.
At 100,000 feet, a single SkySite platform can provide service to an area the size of Oklahoma, the company says, which it is fond of comparing to a tower covering about 12-miles in diameter.
The company will have a demonstration of voice service this year and plans to have a regional deployment with a wireless voice customer in 2004.
Wide open market
Jerry Knoblach, CEO and chairman of Space Data, says his company has a wide open market.
Wireless tower operators – Space Data’s principal competitors – face the huge financial burden of building sites in isolated locations that may receive few phone calls in a month, Knoblach said. Satellite service providers have had many financial problems. Satellites are also aging and business needs to take off if the companies hope to replace their current birds, Knoblach believes.
Carriers do not, however, have to think of SkySite as replacing existing towers, Knoblach said. Space Data’s SkySites work in concert with current ground-based wireless systems and do not interfere with towers or other service providers.
Although eventually the company is hoping that many carriers will use the company’s weather balloons instead of building more towers. Knoblach says that SkySites are actually complementary to towers because towers still will be required in high-usage areas where it probably is not good to hit users with falling objects.
But in rural markets, Space Data believes it has a great opportunity.
“Eighty percent of the population lives on just 10 percent of the land,” Knoblach said in a recent telephone interview, reiterating what the company has been saying for several years. “You could never build enough terrestrial towers to cover that 20 percent of the population who live in the middle of nowhere.”
But while the idea of balloons for communications towers is rather old, Koblach says, “This is way new technology.”
Recent advances that allow components to be reduced in size, he said, are “fairly revolutionary.”
Battery size and power production has improved significantly as well, he added.
And Knoblach’s company sees an opportunity to execute on some ambitious plans for Space Data’s SkySites project.
It hopes to launch Styrofoam-encased radio transceivers connected to 5-foot-diameter latex, biodegradable weather balloons from 70 sites in 48 states by the end of 2004. The balloons, which are designed to float up to 20 miles above the earth’s surface, rising at about 1,000 feet per minute, will provide communications services for about 24 hours. Then they will be replaced with new balloons.
Launching balloons with attached electronics twice a day in those 48 states will cost $300 a launch or about $15 million to $20 million a year. The company argues it is far less expensive funding that ongoing process than what most carriers spend on towers without reaching the same coverage area.
The components parachute to earth, and as long as they weigh less than 6 pounds they cannot harm aircraft on the way down. The debris will land in rural areas. The components can be retrieved or mailed by those who find them.
The National Weather service says that about 20 percent of its electronic devices are returned through the mail when they fall to earth.
FAA and FCC approved
Space Data has received approval from the FCC and the Federal Aviation Administration for its balloon-based SkySite technology.
Early messaging services will be solely text based working with two-way Palm Pilots and two-way pagers such as those manufactured by SkyTel and Blackberry, said Knoblach.
In the next year or so, Space Data is hoping to bring mobile phone service to remote locations for nearly the same price customers pay for cellular phone service in big cities.
Eventually, Space Data wants to deploy SkySites internationally, supporting both voice and data communications.
In its initial implementation, though, the company has been focused on oil and gas companies that need communications in the rural Southwest.
Knoblach said that Space Data’s beta testing this summer has gone well in conjunction with the oil and gas industry to provide telemetry service to wells, pipelines and storage facilities in the Southwest.
Oil and gas companies want to monitor oil wells and communicate with employees in the field in the most isolated of places.
No matter how remote the company said it has the ability to monitor every phase of the energy exploration, production and distribution process. The firm works with manufacturers of Remote Telemetry Unit (RTU) hardware and developers of Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA) software.
Space Data’s network uses ReFLEX technology developed by Motorola. ReFLEX systems are used in millions of wireless data devices. Of particular value for the energy industry is the fact that ReFLEX modems are designed to inter-operate with existing RTUs.
The company primarily targeted data applications, specifically narrowband PCS operators because the ReFlex messaging protocol is simple to configure and the company wanted to start with basic protocols before moving to more complex networks.
For years, petroleum companies have used CDPD for telemetry, but that is system is going away.
The slow removal of some of these types of legacy systems represents an opportunity for Space Data as well. As cellular-based carriers discontinue Cellular Digital Packet Data (CDPD) service, (Some will drop such service within the year.) Space Data is one of several companies hoping to replace those systems. The company says it expects to extend service well beyond the reach of CDPD towers at comparable prices, and is far less expensive than satellite monitoring.
Earlier this year, the FCC decided to sunset the analog compatibility requirement for cellular phones, making it unnecessary for carriers to support analog after the next five years. Analog still dominates in many rural areas.
Operators may have an increasingly difficult time supporting their analog network subscribers. Most of these networks were built for customers using 3-watt bag phones, a device that is becoming increasingly difficult to find because most manufacturers are focusing on newer lightweight handsets desired by most subscribers.
Without 3-watt phones, carriers’ rural coverage areas will have footprint gaps and need additional towers to maintain their footprint. That’s an opportunity for SkySite.
As of February, the company said that while the rest of the telecom sector may be in an economic decline, it is in a growth mode. Gearing up for its commercial launch this year, Space Data moved into expanded facilities in Chandler, a suburb of Phoenix.
Space Data believes its system will bring wireless communications to more than 50 million rural and underserved consumers throughout the United States. The new facility represents a 50 percent increase in space and the ability to double the number of employees.
The Federal Communications Commission granted licenses for half of the Narrowband Personal Communications Systems (PCS) spectrum to Space Data Corp. earlier this spring. The new licenses allow Space Data to provide nationwide coverage in the 900 MHz band.
Space Data was the successful bidder in the FCC Auction 41 for these 204 licenses in 2001 and completed full payment of its bid amount in April.
Space Data is the first FCC licensee to partner with Native American tribal governments to earn bidding credits in an FCC auction. The partnership commits the company to provide wireless service to Indian tribal lands.
Other high-altitude players include SkyTower Telecommunications, Sky Station International and Angel Technologies, all of which use some form of airplanes or airships to provide rural coverage. Knoblach says that while these solutions are viable, they must meet FAA regulations and therefore are still a few years away from reality.
Space Data has a patent-pending on its network, claiming it will produce dependable, strong, clear, two-way signals over hundreds and hundreds of miles. Space Data also has a Vendor Certification Program for the companies that it works with to ensure compatibility of systems. So the company believes it is way out in front of the competition.
The company says that millions of successful weather balloon flights prove it is one of the most dependable and sustainable of all modern systems for beaming info through the airwaves. For more than 60 years, weather balloons have been the foundation of global meteorology as they provide atmospheric data to weather stations. Hopefully, we’ll soon see if the system is as dependable for wireless communications.