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Google to build 80,000 foot radio tower?

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Floating a New Idea

One of the problems with cell phone base stations is they don't want to be particularly high up, especially in busy areas. Greater elevation increases cell size, which is great in the countryside; but since capacity is on a per-cell basis, in most cases the cells don't want to be more than 20 metres up, which can make siting them difficult.

Squeezing GSM transmitters into a pregnant lamp post is one option - though most upright rods you see at the side of the road are actually sewer chimneys. Pretending they are trees is another, but the required network equipment generally gives the game away. Once we talk about putting up antennae for WiMAX, and all other services looking to fill the digital dividend, we're going to have to find smarter places to put our aerials.

Which is where Space Data Corp comes in: it owns some spectrum in the 900MHz band, and rather than build a network of transmitters it just attaches its cell sites to hydrogen balloons and pays local farmers $50 a time to launch them, usually one every day keeping around ten covering the whole southern US from a height of around 24km (between 80 and 100 thousand feet). The balloons last a day, after which they pop and the kit parachutes down to be collected by hobbyists, with GPS equipment, who get $100 a time for returning the $2,500 equipment package.

When he we asked Google if it indeed has an eye on Space Data, it didn't respond. But its interest isn't surprising, especially if the search megabeast is serious about grabbing a chunk of 700MHz; but the more meteorologically-inclined will have noticed that Space Data Corp.'s model requires a reasonably predictable wind pattern, making expansion into the UK - or indeed deployment beyond the southern US - unlikely.

Over the years we've seen various plans for aerial broadband, encompassing everything from remotely-piloted blimps to manned aircraft circling day and night, but outside from Space Data Corp.'s success the rest of the world is still relying on steel towers with antennae bolted to them. So most likely we'll just have to expect to see a lot more of them in future even if, in the UK at least, we'll have no idea what they're doing there. ®

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