Up, Up and Away
By Marc Weingarten, Wed Aug 07 00:00:00 GMT 2002

Copious hot air ballons promise wireless connectivity in rural areas.

Rural wireless users just can’t catch a break. Things were bad enough before the dot-com crash, when large swaths of the U.S. were left in the lurch, unable to access telecom services as readily as their urban counterparts. Now that we’re deep into the throes of an economic slump, investment in telecom infrastructure has flattened out somewhat. That means fewer towers, fewer carriers, and fewer paying customers.

For areas with low population density, the cost of building telecom infrastructure is simply too high – the customer base is too small. And any small carrier thinking about using satellite technology can just forget about it. Not only is it prohibitively expensive to launch a satellite, but the cost of updating satellite technology to keep up with consumer demand is even greater.

Now, Space Data Corp, a company founded by three former classmates at M.I.T., has landed upon a novel way to spread good telecom cheer all over the rural landscape, for considerably less money than the traditional satellite-and-towers method. Their solution: Hot air balloons. Lots of them. Think of it as a very low-tech satellite orbiting the stratosphere, beaming down cell phone and data signals with little interference.

It all started when...

The notion was cooked up five years ago by Jerry Knoblach, an engineer who at the time was working at a company called Orbital Sciences, which specializes in satellite communication (Space Data’s two other main partners are David Wu and Eric Frische). In addition to its satellite services, Orbital Sciences also supplied radiosondes weather instrumentation packages that record and transmit atmospheric and meteorological data from a weather balloon to the National Weather Service (NWS). The proverbial light bulb clicked over Knoblach’s head: What if the hot air balloons that the NWS used for its data gathering could be appropriated for wireless use?

The advantages were obvious. The National Weather Service has launched two balloons a day, 100,000 feet in the air from 69 locations for the past 50 years. From this height, the balloon records data that meteorologists use to create weather forecasts. The nylon balloon, which is 5 feet in diameter, carries less than four pounds of data recording equipment.

Knoblach landed upon the idea of piggybacking a package of communications devices primarily a digital software radio that can send and receive signals at various protocols, a flight control computer, a DSP based wireless repeater with 2-watt energy output and a GPS receiver.

This lightweight component system would turn the balloon into a wireless platform device. Thanks to advances in lightweight processors, the entire package, which is called SkySite, would weigh less than 6 pounds which means the company could avoid FAA rules for contacting air traffic controllers. Floating 20 miles above the earth's surface, it could provide communications services for approximately 12 to 24 hours, and then be replenished with a new "constellation" of ballooncraft.

"From an economic standpoint, we’re not planning on competing with the big carriers," says Space Data Corp President David Wu, a refugee of Henry Yuen’s Gemstar-TV Guide. "We want to compliment their service, and position ourselves as an infrastructure provider. Instead of building towers, they can come to us."

The company has conducted numerous tests using balloons purchased from the same company that sells them to the NWS, and the results have been stunning. "We conducted a trial run here in Phoenix, and our 2 watt transmitter was as responsive as a 500-watt tower," says Wu. "We’re so far up, we don’t have to deal with any surface anomalies, like buildings, or interference from mountains."

A carrier could activate dead zones at $300 per SkySite; for ubiquitous coverage, 50,000 sites could cover 90 percent of the country for $15 million. Compare that to the $60 million or more it might cost to build 5000 towers to cover 20 percent of the United States. One balloon can provide coverage for a 350 mile radius.

Tracking Ballons

The National Weather Service balloons, however, are expendable, and burst and disintegrate once they climb beyond 1000,000 feet. Space Data would like to keep track of as many of its balloons as possible for re-use. To that end, they have invented a telemetry system with ballast that will not only keep the balloon at a level altitude, but will allow Space Data to retrieve the communications package once the balloon has completed its 24-hour cycle.

"The communications devices on the balloon are contained in a Styrofoam box, and it’s got a little parachute on it," says David Wu. "When the balloon comes down, the box jettisons itself, and the package floats down by itself. We’ll then have someone collect the boxes, or put a bounty on the Internet."

Space Data is still trying to secure a deal with the National Weather Service, who are exited about the benefits to be had from the company’s patented GPS system. Currently, the National Weather Service is not budgeted to provide GPS for its balloons. Space Data will provide the service, in exchange for the piggyback privileges. "We will pay for their balloons, and we’ll provide GPS and wind data," says Wu. "In exchange, they will launch the balloons for us."

The company envisions itself as an affiliate of the major carriers. "Sprint, let’s say, would sign up to obtain underutilized capacity in rural areas," says Wu. "We would then give a revenue share back to the service provider, and we would get marketing and spectrum in exchange."

Thus far, the company has raised $8 million from private investors, and has purchased over 1.5 MHz of nationwide narrowband PCS spectrum in the 900-MHz band for $4.2 million. In the event that the NWS doesn’t sign up with Space Data, the company plans to proceed with its own launch stations.

Marc Weingarten is an LA-based writer whose work appears in Business 2.0, The Los Angeles Times, Smart Business, Entertainment Weekly, The Village Voice, Vibe and San Francisco magazine.