Sunday, February 19, 2006

Balloons as Cell Towers?

Wimbledon, ND has a special place in my heart. I got an incredible reception at my talk there and was presented an “I played tennis at Wimbledon” t-shirt. I also subscribed to the Wimbledon Newsletter, a great monthly publication that just went over 300 subscribers, not bad for a town of only 237!

This month’s issue reports on a new initiative in ND led by former governor Ed Schafer which intends to fly nine cell-system equipped weather balloons to provide cell phone service over the entire state. The hydrogen filled balloons will fly in the stratosphere, 20 miles above the ground and above the jet stream. Winds at that altitude are a steady 30 mph east to west in the summer and west to east in the winter. The balloons would be set up to jettison their lunch-box sized electronic gear when they reach the edge of ND, parachuting to earth where it is picked up via its GPS signal. The now much lighter balloon goes higher into the atmosphere, where it expands until it bursts. The equipment is taken to the opposite side of the state; a new battery pack is installed and re-launched. Schafer thinks that the repeater could be used indefinitely, “unless it lands in a lake or gets run over by a truck.”

The economics of this endeavor are something that ND native son Rich Karlgaard, publisher of Forbes magazine, and proponent of the “Cheap Revolution” would love. It takes over 1,000 cell towers to cover the state of ND at a cost of around $200,000 each. Many areas of the state never get a tower because of the high cost of these towers compared to the usage in minutes. A balloon (without the equipment) only costs $55. I don’t have to even do a calculation on the back of an envelope for this one. The cell tower calc has 8 zeros behind the 2, whereas 9 x $55 sounds pretty affordable to me. Talk about Rich’s Cheap Revolution!

Trial balloons are going up this month. The system should be operational by this summer.

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