Why put up more than 1,000 towers to spread cell phone service across North Dakota when a few balloons would do it?
So says former North Dakota Gov. Ed Schafer, one of the backers of a plan to attach wireless repeaters to weather balloons high above the state to fill gaps in cellular coverage.
"I know it sounds crazy," Schafer said. "But it works in the lab."
Extend America, a North Dakota wireless telecommunications company, and Chandler, Ariz.-based Space Data Corp. are developing the balloon-borne cellular technology, believed to be the first of its kind.
A trial balloon will be launched next month in North Dakota to test the theory, said Schafer, the chief executive officer of Bismarck-based Extend America. Schafer left office in 2000 after eight years as governor.
If successful, the balloons could be drifting across the stratosphere above North Dakota this summer, providing cellular coverage around the state.
Schafer said the cost of the balloons is a fraction of the cost to build cellular towers in remote areas.
Jerry Knoblach, the CEO of Space Data, said although the balloon technology called SkySite is new to cellular, "the platform is very well proven."
His company has launched thousands of the free-floating balloons in Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Arkansas and New Mexico to track data for oil company vehicles, wells and pipelines over the past year, he said. And Knoblach is certain the balloons will work for cellular service in North Dakota — even in cold or stormy weather. He said balloons were launched even during Hurricane Katrina.
"It's just like a weather balloon at the airport," Schafer said. "There's enough hydrogen in them to rise very rapidly."
Up to 20 miles above the earth, stratospheric winds would push the latex weather balloons across the state at about 30 mph. Each balloon would deliver voice and data service to an area hundreds of miles in diameter, Schafer said.
"Nine balloons would always be in the air, with some going up, some going down, and some in the middle," Schafer said.
Once the balloons transit the state's stratosphere, the electronic gear would be jettisoned remotely and fall to the earth with a parachute.
The electronic equipment, about the size of a toaster, would be recovered through the use of a global positioning satellite device.
"We'd pay some guy a bounty, put in a new battery pack and send it off again," Knoblach said.
Schafer said a repeater could be used indefinitely "unless it lands in a lake or gets run over by a truck."
Cheaper than building cell towers
The state of North Dakota is an "interested observer" in the technology, said Jerry Fossum, the telecommunications director for the state Information Technology Department.
"It's interesting technology that, at first blush, sounds really crazy," Fossum said. "It's certainly a possible solution to some of our demographic problems of a lot of space and not a lot of people. I hope it works."
Knoblach said the hydrogen-filled balloons cost about $55 each. The balloons swell from six feet in diameter to 30 feet after they gain altitude. After the electronic equipment is released, the balloons expand with the drop in air pressure until they burst.
Winds at high altitudes are consistent, blowing west to east in the winter, and east to west in the summer, Knoblach said. The balloons would travel above the jet stream, and he said they would not be bothered by storms.
Schafer said it costs about $250,000 to build one cellular tower in North Dakota, and many remote areas don't have enough customers to pay for it.
"To cover every square mile of North Dakota, it would take 1,100 cell towers," Schafer said. "We can do the whole state with three balloons — and it won't have problems with that line-of-sight stuff," he said, referring to hills that can block signals from towers.
Schafer thinks the entire idea is a "pretty cool" and affordable option for remote areas that might not otherwise have cellular coverage.
The system is not designed to compete with existing tower-based networks. Knoblach said the service would be sold wholesale to existing telecommunications companies. He and Schafer said users likely would see a minimal charge, if any.
Knoblach said the military is eyeing the system for use in Iraq. He said Space Data wants to establish similar systems across the United States by 2008. The startup company has been doing it for 15 months, and the North Dakota balloons would "the next level," he said.
"The nice thing is that we don't have to weld a bunch of steel together to build a tower," Schafer said. "We just let these babies go."