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Fri, Jul 09, 2004

Broadband's Excellent Airship Adventure

"Stratellites" To Fly Over Atlanta

You know how GPS works, right? A constellation of satellites in orbit feeds information to your receiver and tells you exactly where in the world you are at that moment.

That's sort of the same concept a company called Sanswire Networks will test next week over Atlanta (GA) -- only it won't be satellites in orbit. Instead, it'll be "stratellites" at lower altitudes. And instead of providing GPS services, Sanswire Networks' stratellites will provide wireless internet connections.

Sanswire's network solution is even more similar to one by a company called Space Data. It puts a network of wireless transmitters and receivers on balloons that hover at altitudes of 80,000 to 100,000 feet.

Space Data began operations in April, providing wireless internet services to oil and gas workers across a 400 square mile area.

The Space Data airships are tiny. The company's website says, "The Federal Aviation Association (FAA) allows SkySite Platforms to be launched without restriction in domestic airspace because they are sufficiently small and light not to pose any threat to aircraft safety. The Space Data airships are tiny. The company's website says, "The Federal Aviation Association (FAA) allows SkySite Platforms to be launched without restriction in domestic airspace because they are sufficiently small and light not to pose any threat to aircraft safety."

Sanswire's Stratellites, however are a lot bigger and fly a lot lower -- between 64,500 and 65,500 feet. "You get a better upload at lower altitudes," said Sanswire's Chief Operating Officer, Brian Keith. "We'll get about 300 kbps up and down during peak hours and between three and four mbps during off-peak hours."

The solution appears to be an elegant one for areas where there are no internet service providers working on fiber-optic cable networks.

Sanswire is working with a company called Techsphere, which is now testing a spherical airship designed for homeland security sentry work. But because of the altitudes necessary for the Sanswire stratellite concept, Keith said the spherical airship just didn't work.

"We had to redesign the airship," he said. The new design is 245 feet long and 145 feet tall (see specs, below). It's much more aerodynamic, Keith said, designed to hover at an altitude where winds are most favorable.

The entire airship is designed to generate the power necessary to keep it on station for a year and to run the wireless internet equipment on board. "The entire skin is photovoltaic," Keith said. "It's the same concept as the MIR space station. We can power everything on board, including positioning and stabilization and still have plenty of power left over."

The $5 million stratellites are designed to hover in place for a year at a time, Keith said. After that, they'll be swapped out for testing and upgrades. If one should stop functioning while still in the air, Keith said, another would be available on six-hours' notice. One stratellite can service 64,000 internet connections (including local area networks).

Will It Interfere With Flight?

"We've been talking too a lot of military people," Keith told ANN, when asked about the possibility that stratellites might interfere with aircraft. "We can't see any major issues at that height (64,500 - 65,500 ft.)."

What about RF interference? That issue is being handled by German-based Skylan Technologies, Keith said. "There's no RF interference horizontally or vertically to any aircraft," he said.

The Sanswire concept is undergoing tests this week and next in Atlanta, although the stratellite design itself hasn't flown yet. There's no firm date for an aerial test -- Sanswire will have to obtain an FAA permit before it can fly. Keith expects his company will put one stratellite in the sky over Atlanta sometime this summer.

Will balloon-based wi-fi ever catch on? Keith said his company and its CEO, Mike Moley, have already received several offers for their concept -- offers worth "millions" of dollars. "The turnkey concept is in the range of about $10 million per airship," Keith said. "That compares quite favorably to laying fiber optic, which could cost billions. Fiber is a great technology, but it came along a little too late, it's too expensive and it takes too long to deploy."

Stratellite Specs
  • Length: 245 feet
  • Height: 145 feet
  • Volume: 1.3 million cubic feet
  • Dual envelopes, both made of Kevlar
  • Powered by electric motors
  • Outer envelope covered in film photovoltaic (solar) units
  • Payload capacity: 3,000 pounds
  • Maximum altitude: 70,000 feet
  • Desired altitude: 65,000 feet
  • Lifting gas consists of Helium and Nitrogen
  • Held in position by 6 onboard GPS units connected to the ship’s engines
  • Line of site to a 300,000 square mile area
  • Wireless capability (currently) to an area with a radius of 75 miles
  • Controlled by earth stations on the ground
  • Maximum duration: 18 months (a replacement ship will be in position prior to bringing original ship down for retrofitting). The original ship will return to its position after retrofitting. Each airship is 100% reclaimable


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