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THE CUTTING EDGE

The Subspace Race

The telecom explosion is leading engineers to consider some surprising alternatives to satellites--like a stratospheric network of balloons and planes that fly in endless circles.

July 13, 1998|ASHLEY DUNN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the still, blue skies about 55,000 feet above the surface of the Earth lies the last great frontier of earthly telecommunications.

Few flights intrude into this peaceful zone of the atmosphere, and the storms that lash the surface of the planet lie thousands of feet below, trapped in an atmospheric shell that hugs the surface.

Through decades of telecommunications development, engineers have largely skipped over the high altitudes of the stratosphere in favor of building out the vast cocoon of copper wire and antennas on the planet's surface or launching satellites into the blackness of space.

The very thought of fixing some device in the air that would constantly struggle against the pull of gravity seemed an affront to engineering elegance, the laws of nature and plain common sense.

But in the last few years, a group of engineers has begun looking at this forgotten zone as an alternative to satellites or terrestrial networks of antennas and wire.

At least four companies in the United States are now developing stratospheric telecommunications networks using high-altitude planes or balloons to serve as sort of tall antennas or very low satellites, depending on your perspective. The aircraft would work in shifts, staying aloft for hours or, in the case of some of the balloon proposals, years at a time to provide uninterrupted wireless service.

The idea may seem farfetched, but the enormous demand for high-speed data connections and cellular phone access has begun to lift the concept of stratospheric platforms into the realm of the possible.

Sky Station, a Washington-based company co-founded by former Secretary of State Alexander P. Haig, is hoping to launch its first balloon in 2000, with the ultimate goal of placing at least 250 balloons over every major urban area in the world.

A St. Louis-based company, Angel Technologies, is set to begin flight tests in the next few weeks of its Burt Rutan-designed high-altitude long-operation (HALO) aircraft. (Rutan also designed the Voyager, the first plane to circumnavigate the globe without refueling.) The company hopes to start offering high-speed Internet access to consumers and businesses starting in 2000. It estimates that a 1.5-megabit-per-second connection--about 50 times faster than a standard analog modem--would cost about $40 a month.

"It's a viable technology," said Yahya Rahmat-Samii, a UCLA professor of electrical engineering who specializes in satellite communications. "You just have to view them as very, very tall towers. The market is growing so big that there is a niche for every proposal. It might not serve billions, just millions, but that's a viable niche."

Steve Morris, an engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, which is under contract to help develop one commercial stratospheric project, added: "There's nothing kooky about it. People think this is a black art or something, but it's all off the shelf."

The main hurdle for the various proposals, according to Rahmat-Samii, is not so much the technology but rather the fitting of all the disparate pieces together. The pieces exist, he said; it's just that no one has ever put them together in this way before.

Ann Henry, a satellite industry analyst for the technology-focused investment bank BancAmerica Robertson Stephens, said a more difficult problem to overcome is trying to find a niche for the technology in the rapidly expanding telecommunications market. She said there are now so many proposals for high-speed voice and data services that there is no great incentive for investors to put their money in such untested ideas as the stratospheric projects.

"The thing that makes me nervous is not so much whether the technology works, but that there are other planned systems that offer the same capacity," Henry said. "From a pragmatic standpoint, satellite systems are much better funded and everyone knows they are going to happen."

Dale Ford, a principal analyst with market research company Dataquest, said that even the high-profile satellite projects have met with wariness from investors because of the large start-up costs of building and launching the systems.

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In many ways, the stratospheric projects make sense only when seen in the context of the enormous scale and cost of more traditional telecommunications systems. For example, the construction of the vast web of cellular phone towers that blankets most of the United States took more than 15 years to build and cost more than $46 billion.

The modern alternative to earthbound networks has been satellites, either low-Earth-orbit or geostationary. But launching satellites is expensive, and the systems are relatively complex and fragile.

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