Zeppelins Take Wireless Access Aloft

This is from Internet World newsletter for March 9, 2001:
Zeppelins Take Wireless Access Aloft

By Michael Cohn
Editor of Internet Everywhere 

Mobile Internet connections are going sky high as one
company gets set to launch gigantic, antenna-filled balloons
over the jungle. One innovative solution to the problem of
providing wireless connections is on the way from Platforms
Wireless International ( http://www.plfm.net ), which 
announced on Monday that it would be setting afloat the 
Aerostat, an unmanned 15-foot-long airship that will provide
cellular connections across difficult terrain. The first
Aerostat will go aloft in June over Brazil. 

"You won't see cellular towers in the Amazon, in Africa, or 
in China," said William Martin, chairman and CEO of Platforms 
Wireless. "Putting towers in place is extremely difficult in 
rough terrain. It is our conviction that this particular 
technology is going to become a strategic imperative for the 
wireless communication industry." 

He claimed that the Aerostat is less than half the cost of a 
terrestrial cellular base station, and much more practical
than satellite-based systems like Iridium, which companies
such as Motorola lost billions trying to operate. 

The zeppelin-like structures carry 1,500 pounds of antennas
and communications equipment and can support wireless
protocols like TDMA, GSM, and CDMA. The airship stays
tethered to the ground 15,000 feet above sea level, providing 
cellular coverage over an area 140 miles in diameter. Similar 
airships are being used for surveillance of drug smuggling
operations on the U.S. border. 

AmeriCel signed a $330 million contract with Platforms
Wireless to purchase five of the systems, but first it 
will conduct a test that will cost between $1 million and 
$1.5 million. The system will initially be deployed in Goias, 
250 miles from the Brazilian capital, providing services for
125,000 subscribers. 

"The payload we're sending to Brazil is 136 TDMA,"  said 
Mark Bonebright, general manager of Composite Optics, which 
developed much of the aerospace technology. "The aircraft 
will receive RF (radio frequency) signals and transform the 
RF signals into fiber-optic signals, then back to RF signals." 

The cylinder will be able to move around a four-mile
diameter as it remains tethered to the mooring station. It
can withstand winds of up to 90 miles an hour, or a hurricane 
level 1 force, according to Martin. However, he doesn't
expect to see that kind of weather in the tropical area where 
the system will be deployed. Each airship will remain in
position for 30 days and then will come down for maintenance
service to replace the helium, which takes about four hours.
In the meantime, Platforms can send up a backup unit inside 
a fixed-wing aircraft. 

How soon will it be before the blimps start floating above
the United States? Platforms Wireless has received inquiries
from the U.S. Marine Corps, the Army, and the Navajo Nation,
so it may not be long. Keep your eyes on the skies. 

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