Latest Wireless Platform: Stratellites

It seems like stories from 1997 are popping up again seven years later! (See the article on ATSC in Korea in this week's RF Report). In 1997 I described Alex Haig's Sky Station in the March 1997 RF Current. A "son of Sky Station" has returned to the news seven years later. This time it's a different company, Sanswire Networks LLC, but the concept is similar: Position unmanned airborne platforms in the stratosphere, above the jet stream, and use them to provide wireless connectivity to the area below. Sky Station doesn't appear to have ever gotten off the ground. The first launch was scheduled for 2001 then postponed to 2002, but a Web search showed no trace of the company now. The URLs in the RF Current article now return a "could not be found" error. According to WHOIS at the domain name expired last month. Was Sky Station ahead of its time?

Sanswire has a detailed description of a Stratellite on its Web page What is a Stratellite?. It says, "A Stratellite is a high-altitude airship that when in place in the stratosphere will provide a stationary platform for transmitting various types of wireless communications services currently transmitted from cell towers and satellites. It is not a balloon or a blimp. It is a high-altitude airship." The airship is made of "Spectra" and uses electricity generated by solar cells to power its engines. The payload, according to the website, is several thousand pounds. At the altitude it will operate at, it can provide clear line-of-site to approximately 300,000 square miles, but the Web site says the initial plan is to use one Stratellite for each major metropolitan area.

The company has ambitious plans: "Once the National Wireless Broadband Network is completed, Sanswire will be able to provide voice, video, and broadband Internet access to all parts of the country." It also proposed other telecommunications uses for the platforms, including "cellular, 3G/4G mobile, MMDS, paging, fixed wireless telephony, HDTV and others." Satellites have problems with real-time two-way communications due to the delays incurred in getting the signal 23,000 miles to the satellite and back again. This makes satellite Internet access unsuitable for most Voice over IP (VoIP) and gaming applications. The Stratellites, with their much lower altitude won't have this problem.

Each unmanned Stratellite will be 245 feet long, 145 feet wide and 87 feet high and be capable of staying aloft for 18 months. The original ship can be refurbished for additional use after being returned to land.

The original Sky Station plan raised several concerns beyond the fear that Sky Stations could fall uncontrolled from the sky, including creating interference to radio astronomy. Doing a Google search on "Sky Station" and "Haig" I found an article that said the real potential for the Sky Station was as a spy platform.

I couldn't find any dates for lift-off of the first Stratellite on the Sanswire Web site. It will be interesting to see if this technology goes the way of Haig's Sky Station or if it will become a viable wireless alternative to satellite and land based communications. alerted me to this story.