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WiMax in Space?

Light Reading
LR Mobile News Analysis
Light Reading
8/17/2005

This could be the strangest application of WiMax technology yet seen.

Sanswire Networks LLC, a subsidiary of Globetel Communications Corp. is working on a prototype of a massive airship that the firm says will be used to transmit wireless communications at 65,000 feet above the Earth. The company wants to build enough of these to provide a national broadband wireless network -- which, we are told, will likely use WiMax technology -- over the U.S. and parts of Canada and Mexico.

"Think of it as a big microwave repeater in the sky," says Craig Mathias, an analyst from the Farpoint Group who is familiar with the project.

We were interested to talk to Sanswire about its big wireless balloon, but the company didn't find anyone that could respond to our inquiries about the technology by press time.

"They are very early stage," Mathias notes.

So here's what we've gleaned about the firm's technology from its Website. The prototype airship, which the firm calls a "stratellite", is a 188 foot-long, unmannned, rigid airship, designed to maintain a stable orbit at 13 miles up.

Sanswire says that it will use "proprietary lifting gas technology" to launch the craft, which will be able to cover "approximately 300,000 square miles, an area roughly the size of Texas" once in the stratosphere.

The craft will use solar-powered engines to maintain its position, controlled via GPS from network operations centers on the ground, according to the Website.

But wouldn't the wind at that height move the craft around? Not according to the firm's FAQ.

"A 60 mph wind at 65,000 feet has 1/18 the amount of force that at 60 mph wind at sea level has. It is still moving at 60 mph, but there are 1/18 the molecules in motion. Insofar as force is concerned, it could be said that a 60 mph wind at 65,000 feet would have the same force against the Stratellite as a 3 mile per hour wind would have at sea level."

Farpoint's Mathias says that solar-powered propellors could maintain the ship's position at that height. "It wouldn't take a lot of energy to move it," he opines.

Others have already tried to get this kind of service off the ground, so far without much success. As you might imagine, it is hard to get this kind of network in place and maintain it while competing on price with already established cable and DSL providers.

"At least two other companies have pursued similar ideas. One was SkyStation International; they also intended to use airships," says Mathias. The other is/was Angel Technologies Corp. Angel planned to run an airbournes wireless network using manned planes that would be sent up in shifts. Skystation is now defunct, and Angel hasn't updated its Website since the year 2000.

But Sanswire/GlobeTel says that it is working with NASA on getting the Stratellite aloft. And the company says it has a $50 million deal with the government of Columbia to put five of the airships up over the Latin American nation.

— Dan Jones, Site Editor, Unstrung

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