Blimps With a Purpose

Vendor floats wireless network

The next blimp you see floating above your town could be delivering more than cheesy advertising for post-ball-game activities — it might be part of a new wireless communications network.

Platforms Wireless International has developed a system that attaches wireless antenna equipment to a blimp hovering 15,000 feet above the ground. The single craft provides wireless coverage to an area 140 miles in diameter, and is designed to be a cheaper, quicker and easier alternative to building out a network with multiple antenna and base station sites throughout a town.

"We are in the position to offer this to third-world countries or underdeveloped and undeveloped countries that dont have the kind of infrastructure we have here," says Robert Perry, president of Platforms Wireless. The target market includes mostly rural areas, because the system covers a wide footprint but doesnt have the capacity to scale up to a large number of users.

The blimp, tested recently in San Diego, is tethered to the ground by a line that delivers power to the gear and carries optical equipment that transmits signals to base stations and switches on the ground.

As unusual as the idea sounds, the company already has a customer. Americel of Brazil signed a $325 million contract with Platforms Wireless. The deal includes five blimps, also called aerostats, as well as maintenance and operations fees. Americel plans to launch the first commercial craft in June.

"Its quite an inexpensive way to put up a whole cellular system," says Allen Nogee, senior analyst at Cahners In-Stat Group.

Also, an operator using Platform Wireless aerostats can begin to service a high number of customers very quickly, instead of spending years building out a network before getting a single customer.

"We allow an operator to come up and generate revenues within 90 days," Perry says.

In Americels region, one blimp will provide service to 75 cities with a total population of 800,000. According to Francois Draper, chief operating officer at Platforms Wireless in Los Angeles, only eight of 100 people in Brazil have access to a telephone; this system can be used to offer fixed or mobile services.

The system isnt without shortcomings, though. Because the service relies on the single craft, if the blimp goes down, the entire network crashes. The only backup to the blimp is an airplane carrying the same type of antenna equipment that can be flown over an area. Strong winds, storms or other catastrophes could threaten the aerostat.

The blimp also loses about 5 percent of its helium each month.

"Every month or so, we bring the aerostat down to the ground during the blackened hours to refill or maintain it," Draper says.

Maintenance operations typically take three to four hours and can be done at night when few people want to use their phones.

Companies such as Americel might use Platforms Wireless solution as a temporary system.

"Its a good way for a carrier to see demand," Nogee says.

Because the blimp is much cheaper to deploy than a typical terrestrial network, an operator could use it to determine regional demand before investing in a tower-based network.

The blimp could also be used to add capacity for an event when people converge on a city and threaten to overload the wireless network there.

The company would likely have to build smaller products that would be easier to move, however, Perry says. In addition, in the U.S. such a quick fix might only be possible in rural areas because of Federal Aviation Administration regulations. Similar blimps carry radar used by the U.S. Border Patrol to monitor the Mexican border, so regulators are at least familiar with the technology.

The aerostats Americel has ordered will use the Time Division Multiple Access air interface standard used by many operators in the Americas, so customers can use existing TDMA handsets. Platforms Wireless may also deliver solutions that operate over the other major world standards, and is working on a third-generation product. In addition, the company has plans for high-speed data solutions.

Platforms Wireless isnt the first company to come up with a truly mobile wireless service platform.

Angel Technologies in St. Louis has developed planes that fly in the stratosphere carrying wireless equipment and offer high-speed data service to hundreds of thousands of users in a 50-mile to 75-mile diameter area. Testing of the product, done in conjunction with Angel partner Raytheon, was completed last year, and the companies are negotiating with prospective service providers. If a deal is made soon, commercial service could start in a U.S. city near the end of 2003.