Airborne Wireless Technology

To most people, blimps are merely considered an expensive form of advertising with little or no other value. Platforms Wireless International (PWI), however, doesn't agree. The company has found an innovative use for these airships--carrying 1,500-pound airborne relay communications (ARC) systems to bring telecommunications services to rural areas.

While the idea of using an airship to deliver cellular and wireless Internet services may raise a few eyebrows, the concept is not a new one--and neither is the technology. In fact, unbeknown to many, the U.S. Border Patrol has been using airships installed with radar for the past 18 years to monitor low-flying aircraft and foot traffic.

On March 5, 2001, PWI investors and members of the media witnessed a demonstration of the deployment at the Composite Optics (COI) compact range located in San Diego, Calif. "Working with COI lends credibility to this deployment," says Robert Perry, president of PWI. One of only two facilities like it in the world, COI is a manufacturing and testing range that simulates RF measurements at 10,000- to 15,000-foot elevations. "The chamber will simulate what the payload is capable of doing when it is 15,000 feet in the air," Perry explains.

Consisting of antennas and communications hardware, the payload will be tethered via fiber-optic cables to a base station on the ground where it will be monitored 24-hours a day. The airship is capable of withstanding winds up to 70 mph and can handle lightning during a storm. Should a storm prove too much for the airship, however, fixed wing aircraft will serve as a backup, flying above the storm to maintain services. In addition, the airship, which is twice the size of the Goodyear blimp, is equipped with a rapid deflation device in the event of a catastrophe so that it doesn't endanger a populated area.

According to Perry, the use of airships to bring wireless communications to rural areas offers a flexible, economically viable alternative to satellite systems or multiple, fixed ground tower antenna structures. "The ARC system consists of multiple antennas that replace terrestrial base stations," he says. "Unlike manned aircraft, which can remain in the air for up to eight hours, or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) that can last up to 48 hours, the airship remains aloft for 30 days before it is brought down for maintenance." Furthermore, the airship does not require pilots, which saves considerable expense.

Servicing a 140-mile radius, the ARC system is capable of handling up to 500,000 cellular subscribers as well as supporting TDMA, CDMA and GSM. "When you drive through the coverage area," says Perry, "you won't know the difference--it's seamless. You can also use the handset that you are currently using." There are no line-of-sight problems since there are no terrestrial cellular towers. Perry predicts that an operator can generate up to $214 million in profits over a 10-year period with this system.

For Third World countries, the advantages are apparent, according to Perry. "There are three things that drive a city: roads, power and communications," he says. The system does not differentiate between cities based on population. "If an area is within the 140-mile radius, it receives coverage regardless of how many people are in the city," Perry explains.

Perry also sees the ARC system as a perfect solution--on a temporary basis--for large construction projects in areas that do not have an infrastructure, for example, the Three Gorges Dam under construction along China's Yangtze River. Countries can also save costs by using the airborne system while building a terrestrial system and later incorporate the base stations used for the airborne system into the terrestrial system.

Service providers are expressing interest in the technology with Americel being the first customer to market in Brazil. At the time this article went to press, the system was scheduled for inauguration sometime in mid-June. "We're bringing in technology that gives Third World countries the ability to better their lives as time goes by," says Perry. "Not every person can afford a cell phone, but we're giving them the capability to build a more advanced society."

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