Can NWS balloons host cell traffic?

Can NWS balloons host cell traffic?

The company is considering posting the last GPS coordinates of the Weather Service's balloons on a Web site and offering a $50 reward for their return.

Space Data Corp. wants to piggyback its cellular repeaters on government weather balloons to cover the entire continental United States, and beyond.

Skepticism is 'everybody's initial reaction' to the idea of routing wireless phone calls via balloons, said Jerry Knoblach, chief executive officer and co-founder of the Chandler, Ariz., company.

But Knoblach said he is convinced that the 69 lighter-than-air balloons launched by the National Weather Service every 12 hours will do the trick. 'We think that redundancy can achieve reliable, ubiquitous coverage,' Knoblach said.

The Federal Communications Commission has given its OK to the scheme, and Space Data is talking with the weather service.

'Discussions are under way,' NWS spokeswoman Susan Weaver confirmed. She said it is too early to comment on the project.

Space Data, however, wants to start a paging service next year, with or without NWS cooperation. Voice service and broadband data service would follow.

For about 50 years, the weather service has launched balloons to collect high-altitude data. The balloons rise to the stratosphere, about 20 miles above the Earth's surface, and drift with the prevailing winds. Their instrument packages transmit data to ground stations for 12 hours, and then a new generation is launched. The old balloons eventually fall back to Earth.

The Federal Aviation Administration limits the weight of the instrument packages to 6 pounds. Improved electronics has shrunk the size of the NWS packages to the point that Space Data believes there now is room for other equipment to ride along.

Page from 100,000 feet

Spokesman Tim Ayers said half-watt pager signals have reached lightweight balloon-borne repeaters at 100,000 feet. A repeater's 190-watt signal can cover an area 360 miles across, he said. At that power, the 69 NWS balloons aloft at any time would have a total coverage area of more than 7 million square miles, about twice the area of the continental United States. The signals relayed from a balloon would go to a base station at the balloon's launch site.

Space Data intends to act as a virtual tower company, selling its coverage to primary cellular carriers. The target market would be the 20 percent of the population in the 80 percent of the nation that is too remote for economical cellular coverage.

The repeaters would be relatively low-powered and designed for light traffic, Ayers said.
'This signal is not going to get inside a large concrete building,' he said. But out of doors and in small buildings, connections should be possible.

Each repeater would shut down after 12 hours. The balloons can remain aloft for up to 48 hours, so a repeater could be reactivated later to provide backup coverage if needed.

Better balloon tracking

Space Data is buying the national narrowband Personal Communications Services spectrum license previously held by TSR Wireless LLC of Fort Lee, N.J., which filed for bankruptcy protection last year. To use the license for its novel scheme, Space Data had to get FCC approval.

Because the repeaters are mobile rather than fixed, they do not meet FCC requirements for base stations. Last month, FCC granted a waiver for the balloon-borne repeaters to operate as base stations at a power level up to 190 watts rather than being restricted to mobile stations' 7 watts.

FCC also relaxed antenna licensing requirements but required the company to keep records of each repeater's location in case other carriers complain of interference.

Because PCS agreements with Canada and Mexico do not cover balloon-borne systems, FCC said Space Data cannot operate within 75 miles of U.S. borders and must use lower power within 150 miles of borders until a new agreement is worked out.

Space Data will track the location of each repeater via the Global Positioning System. That is what the company hopes will convince NWS to let the repeaters go along for the ride, because the GPS data would help the weather service track its balloons more accurately.

'We're not asking for any money,' said Charles Tracy, Space Data's vice president of flight operations. The company is willing to pay for additional gas'hydrogen for most weather balloons'and cover other costs of launching its repeaters.

An added incentive for NWS could be faster recovery of its instrument packages. About 18 percent of the packages are found and returned to NWS after they fall to Earth, according to FCC. They can be refurbished and reused.

Using its GPS data, Space Data has recovered the repeaters from about half of its 33 test flights and all repeaters from the last 13 flights.

The repeaters, which cost about $300 each, would fall to Earth in protective plastic packages with return postage to Space Data. The company is considering posting the last GPS coordinates of the falling packages on a Web site and offering a $50 reward for their return.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.


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