Wi-Fi gets high

March 25, 2005, is the scheduled launch date for the prototype a high-altitude airship designed to hover in Earth's stratosphere and provide a stationary platform for transmitting various types of wireless communications services over an area up to 300,000 miles. Imagine a world where connecting to the Internet would simply mean opening a laptop, wherever/whenever, where connectivity would quite literally

March 25, 2005, is the scheduled launch date for the prototype “Stratellite,” a high-altitude airship designed to hover in Earth's stratosphere and provide a stationary platform for transmitting various types of wireless communications services over an area up to 300,000 miles. Imagine a world where connecting to the Internet would simply mean opening a laptop, wherever/whenever, where connectivity would quite literally fall from the heavens. That's Stratellite's mission.

Michael Molen, chairman of Sanswire Networks (www.sanswire.com), the company that has developed the new technology, explains it like this: “…we have developed and begun construction on what we believe is the most exciting telecommunications project of our generation, our National Wireless Broadband Network. Using Stratellites as the Network's wireless platform, we plan to offer services that include voice, video and data. The Network will allow users to access the Internet at high-speed from anywhere in the country using wireless devices that are readily available.”

If the Stratellite technology works as Mr. Molen and others believe it will, then the stranger-than-science fiction airship may forever transform wireless communications. NASA gave it a thumbs-up in January in the form of a Letter of Intent between NASA and GlobeTel Communications (www.globetel.com), the parent company of Sanswire. According to GlobeTel, the agreement with NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base in California “will provide NASA and other agencies the access to Stratellite for the installation, integration and deployment of NASA-sponsored sensors and other projects. The parties also envision that the agreement will employ provisions for joint advocacy and proposal development efforts….”

We just have to see this machine. Made of dual envelopes of Kevlar over a plastic frame and covered in film photovoltaic units (solar panels), renderings of the helium-filled Stratellite look like a gigantic flattened pillow. The actual airship is 87 feet high, 245 feet long and 145 feet wide and driven by solar-powered electric motors. Three onboard flight computers enable the Stratellite to fly virtually independently, although it can also be monitored and commanded from the ground, according to Sanswire.

Once it is floating in the stratosphere, about 65,000 feet above the earth, six onboard GPS units connected to the ship's engines are intended to keep it hovering in position. At such a high altitude, very little effort is required from the engines to keep the aerodynamic Stratellite stationary, according to the company. Each airship is intended to stay aloft for about 18 months, after which a replacement will be sent up while that ship is retrofitted and prepared to go back to work.

It is not the Hardy Boys, pure gee-whiz allure of the Stratellite, however, that merits the attention of the trucking industry. The potential benefits of this technology versus satellite systems deserve a serious look from any business as dependent on mobile communications as trucking. The most important of these is the possibility of seamless, lower-cost, two-way communications. Stratellites could provide nationwide or even continent-wide wireless broadband service akin to Wi-Fi. Several Stratellites linked together could cover many hundreds of thousands of square miles, providing service even to places where little or no network infrastructure exists today.

Broadband is not the whole story, however. Sanswire reports that it is also looking at other telecommunications uses, including cellular, paging, fixed wireless telephony, and other applications. It's a big goal and a broad vision. It will be exciting to see if it really flies.

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