Balloons to be tested as cell-tower replacement
BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) – Why put up costly cell phone towers in thinly
populated areas, when a few balloons would do?
In North Dakota, former Gov. Ed Schafer is backing a plan to loft
network repeaters on balloons high above the state to fill gaps in
“I know it sounds crazy,” said Schafer, who now heads Extend America
Inc., a wireless telecommunications company. “But it works in the
Extend America and Chandler, Ariz.-based Space Data Corp. are
the technology, which is believed to be the first to use disposable
balloons to provide cellular coverage.
A trial balloon will be launched in the next few weeks to test the
said Schafer, who left office in 2000 after eight years as governor.
“To cover every square mile of North Dakota, it would take 1,100 cell
towers,” Schafer said. “We can do the whole state with three
If successful, the hydrogen-filled balloons could be drifting across
stratosphere above North Dakota this summer, providing cellular
a tiny fraction of the cost of building cellular towers.
Jerry Knoblach, the CEO of Space Data, says that although the balloon
technology, called SkySite, is new to the cellular industry, “the
is very well proven” for other purposes.
His company has launched thousands of the free-floating balloons in
Oklahoma, Louisiana, Arkansas and New Mexico over the past year. The
wireless data network they encompass tracks oil company vehicles and
monitors the production of oil wells and pipelines, he said.
Knoblach is certain the balloons will work for cellular service in
Dakota — even in cold or stormy weather. He said balloons were
even during Hurricane Katrina.
Up to 20 miles above the earth, well above commercial airliner
steady stratospheric winds would push the latex balloons across the
at about 30 mph. Each balloon would deliver voice and data service to
area hundreds of miles in diameter.
“Nine balloons would always be in the air, with some going up, some
down, and some in the middle,” Schafer said.
The balloons swell from six feet in diameter to 30 feet after they
altitude. Once a balloon leaves the state, its toaster-size
pod would jettison, deploy a parachute and fall to earth, where it
signal its position.
“We’d pay some guy a bounty, put in a new battery pack and send it
again,” Knoblach said. Schafer said the repeater could be used
indefinitely “unless it lands in a lake or gets run over by a
After the electronic equipment is released, the balloons rise and
with the drop in air pressure until they burst. Knoblach said the
cost about $55 each.
Schafer said it costs about $250,000 to build one cellular tower in
Dakota, and many remote areas don’t have enough customers to pay for
“The nice thing is that we don’t have to weld a bunch of steel
build a tower,” Schafer said. “We just let these babies go.”
Weston Henderek, a senior wireless analyst with Current Analysis of
Sterling, Va., said he was not aware of a similar system of using
to provide wireless relays.
“It’s difficult to say whether it’s a pie-in-the-sky idea or if it
actually work,” he said. “It’s one of those cutting-edge type of
that people are starting to look at. It will be interesting to see how
testing pans out.”
At the height of the Internet boom a few years ago, several companies
looked at providing broadband or cell phone service from manned or
blimps and aircraft.
So far, none of those plans have fully materialized, but GlobeTel
Communications Corp. of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., has signed contracts to
provide the nation of Colombia with unmanned communications blimps
would hover 10 to 13 miles up.
In North Dakota, plans call for the service to be sold wholesale to
existing wireless carriers. The state government is an “interested
observer,” said Jerry Fossum, the telecommunications director for the
state Information Technology Department.
“It’s certainly a possible solution to some of our demographic
a lot of space and not a lot of people,” Fossum said. “I hope it
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