Wireless broadband balloons: not dead

21 Feb 2008

The road to Ubiquitous Connectivity is littered with broadband technologies that either became outdated or never quite found a market. Still, some persist. Like powerline. Or

broadband zeppelins

. Or hot air balloons.

I remember hearing about broadband balloons ages ago - the idea of using a fleet of weather balloons fitted with transponders to bring cheap wireless broadband connectivity footprints to rural areas. It sounded technically plausible but commercially unsexy at the time, and frankly still does.

But yesterday's Wall Street Journal ran a piece on Space Data Corp, which maintains a fleet of ten broadband balloons across the southern US that are used mainly by transport and oil companies for telecoms services.

The actual operation of the system is quite interesting. The balloons are only good for 24 hours, after which the transponders are jettisoned and the balloons pop in the low pressure of the upper atmosphere, which means Space Data has to launch replacements at $50 a pop. The transponders come back to Earth on parachutes and, because they could literally land anywhere the wind blows, they are recovered by hobbyists with GPS devices who get $100 for every box they recover.

Oh, and they hire airport mechanics and dairy farmers to launch new balloons.

It's creative, if nothing else, and Space Data says it's cheaper than cell towers, since one balloon can cover the same area as 40 base stations. Google is reportedly interested in the technology as well.

Still, out here in Asia, I suspect we'll stick with satellites, Wimax and low-cost base stations to get our rural areas connected.

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