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A Blimp Project Gets a Lift

Logistically Troubled Venture Receives Airwave Allotment

August 04, 1997|JUBE SHIVER Jr. | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — A bid by former Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. and others to build a global communications network with 250 blimps has gotten a boost from federal regulators, who have agreed to set aside airwaves that could be used by the ambitious venture.

Acting on a request by Haig's company--Sky Station International Inc. of Washington, D.C.--the Federal Communications Commission last month quietly approved a plan to open up a band of previously unused high-frequency airwaves for new wireless communications services.

The airwaves would be auctioned by the FCC to the highest bidder, probably within 12 months, an agency official said.

The plan is riddled with high risks, including the need to develop revolutionary technology to hold the 11-ton blimps in place and to use the high-frequency airwaves. And it would compete with a host of other global satellite ventures being launched over the next few years to provide wireless communications.

Sky Station, whose key investors include Haig's Worldwide Associates and a company headed by former computer executive Edward Silansky, hopes to be among the first in line to acquire the airwaves to deploy a worldwide constellation of helium-filled blimps floating 13 miles over the Earth's surface.

The blimps would be used to relay phone calls and connect computers to the Internet up to 100 times faster than high-speed phone lines. They would function as a sort of self-contained, wireless network covering a 50-mile-radius region.

The blimp would relay wireless messages directly from any user to another in its coverage area who is equipped with a wireless transceiver about the size of current portable computer modems. For longer distances, users would require bigger antennae. And for intercity links, the airships would connect with ground stations that would send signals over the regular public telephone network.

Sky Station executives say the service will be priced less than competing wireless services. The FCC decision "is something that we are very pleased is now in place and we expect to be in operation by 1999," said Paul Mahon, senior vice president and general counsel. Haig was not available for comment.

Sky Station's fortunes have also been bolstered by the recruitment of veteran satellite executive Larry P. Yermack from Orbital Sciences Corp. As executive vice president for systems integration, he will report to Haig's son, Alexander P. Haig, president of Sky Station.

But the $4.2-billion project has been ridiculed by many experts, including rival wireless provider Motorola Inc., which contends the plan has huge safety, financial and technical shortcomings.

Sky Station has provided few details about its financing. Mahon said it plans to fund the venture with just $800 million in equity. He said Sky Station, which has hired Credit Suisse First Boston as financial advisor, can launch the project with so little start-up capital because it believes it can build its global network market by market.

But money is the least of Sky Station's problems. Even before it launches any blimps, Sky Station must figure out how to harness the newly allocated airwaves.

FCC engineers found that the ultra-high-frequency airwaves being set aside will require high-cost receivers and transmitters in order to avoid interference from rain, snow, buildings and other physical obstructions.

In addition, keeping 250 11-ton blimps stationary above the Earth will pose a potential risk for people living below them.

But Sky Station said it will keep the blimps safely aloft with a "Corona Ion Engine," which uses the surrounding atmosphere and the sun as fuel sources to keep the blimps in place.

The engine technology--invented by Sky Station's chief scientist, Alfred Wongwas apparently what sparked the former state secretary's interest in the blimp project. But executives say they are looking into other technologies as well.

Despite skepticism about the venture, a few experts believe that if Sky Station can figure out a way to keep the blimps aloft, the project could be a more cost-effective way to provide global communications than competitors' plans to use satellites.

"With these blimps, you can park them over the city where the [communications] market is," said John Pike of the Federation of American Scientists in Washington. "Satellites spend a lot of time flying over the Earth in places where you don't have customers."

Jube Shiver Jr. can be reached at Jube.Shiver@latimes.com

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