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Japanese operator to test quake-proof floating phone-mast BLIMPS

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Japan's third-largest network operator will trial blimp-based cells that could be instantly deployed to 100 metres above the ground even if said terra firma is shaking uncontrollably or has disappeared under flood waters.

Next month's tests, reported by IDG, involve attaching 3G base stations to a handful of helium-filled balloons, powered from the ground via their tethering wires.

The balloons will also carry a steerable microwave transmitter for backhaul, with the intelligence to find and lock on to a truck-based ground station, which can connect to multiple blimps and is wired into the rest of the cellular infrastructure.

The lorries can be more than 5km (3 miles) away, although the limit will be down to how accurately the blimp can point the microwave beam rather than any limitation on the range of the technology, which is what the trials will seek to establish among other things.

Floating base stations are nothing new, and battery-powered-autonomously-piloted machines have been tested by various companies over the years. As well as the problem of powering the things (which Softbank will do with ground-based batteries), issues with backhaul and coverage have made such approaches all but impractical outside military deployments where the users can be relied upon (or trained) to be more tolerate of technical limitations.

As a blimp moves in the wind its coverage area varies widely, potentially extending coverage into areas where interference will be a problem. A microwave link will only have a few degrees of toleration, so aiming that from a floating platform is also a challenge. But greater intelligence can address both those issues, and the development of femtocells and beam-forming Wi-Fi have shown that incredibly clever silicon can be made surprisingly cheaply.

Breaking out the satellite phones is the traditional response within a disaster area, but they are expensive, suffer latency and (most importantly) not already in the pockets of those suffering most. Modern network standards include protocols to prioritise calls, enabling a system such as that being tested by Softbank to provide connectivity for the emergency services while connecting ordinary people when possible.

Once can imagine tethered balloons sited atop tower blocks ready for instant deployment should the need arise, assuming they can be made intelligent enough to configure themselves where necessary.

Which is what the trials, being held in conjunction with Hokkaido University are setting out to establish. ®

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