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The Internet The Almighty Buck

Broadband Barrage Balloons 287

Posted by Hemos
from the moon-over-my-hammy dept.
alnya writes "BBC Online are reporting a story of a York-based company called SkyLinc who are floating baloons connected to a fibre optic pole which, they say, can deliver broadband access at "more than double the speed of most broadband services currently available" - whatever that means. Only 18 balloons would be necessarily to blow BT out the water (according to the article). Is this on the horizon?"
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Broadband Barrage Balloons

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  • Olde Idea (Score:4, Insightful)

    by ackthpt (218170) * on Monday May 26, 2003 @10:54AM (#6040531) Homepage Journal
    We used to use weather balloons for field day. It's ok, until a good wind kicks up.
  • in other news Steve Case [go.com] is no longer the largest windbag in broadband.

    Mike
  • by Exiler (589908) on Monday May 26, 2003 @10:54AM (#6040533)
    Pellet gun.
    • RTFA! (Score:2, Informative)

      by Anti Frozt (655515)
      According to the article, the ballons would be 1.5 Km above the Earth's surface. Good luck finding a high-powered rifle, let alone a pellet gun, that would be able to accurately hit one of these ballons.
      • Re:RTFA! (Score:5, Funny)

        by Graspee_Leemoor (302316) on Monday May 26, 2003 @11:04AM (#6040599) Homepage Journal
        I live in York, UK, and I believe the Accuracy International Artic Warfare (Super) Magnum sniper rifle in 7.62mm could bring one down.

        Heh heh.

        graspee

        • Re:RTFA! (Score:5, Funny)

          by Graspee_Leemoor (302316) on Monday May 26, 2003 @11:15AM (#6040637) Homepage Journal
          Mod me down for I am wrong! Apparently the AI arctic warfare in 7.62 has a max range of 800m, and even in larger cal can only go to 1100m. This is the "last 400m" problem in modern telecommunication sniping.

          I am now looking into larger calibre rifles, like .50. Will update you when I find one that can go the full 1500m...

          graspee

          • Re:RTFA! (Score:5, Funny)

            by Graspee_Leemoor (302316) on Monday May 26, 2003 @11:22AM (#6040678) Homepage Journal
            Ah! The Accuracy International AW50, which uses massive .50 cal has a max effective range of 2000m!

            I just thought that a British rifle should be used- it's more appropriate; support local industry and all that.

            Apologies for splattering this forum with my gun geekiness- you may now mod me into oblivion and beyond.

            graspee

          • Re:RTFA! (Score:4, Interesting)

            by Enonu (129798) on Monday May 26, 2003 @11:23AM (#6040691)
            Are you taking into account that'd you be firing these rifles straight up rather than simply over land at sea level?
          • Re:RTFA! (Score:2, Interesting)

            by tkjtkj (577219)
            There is a difference between a rifle's "maximum effective range" and its maximum altitude when fired straight up. Eg, when fired parallel to the earth's surface, the only force slowing the projectile is the force of wind resistance, which will continue to operate for as long as the projectile is aloft, ie, the time it'd take a body to fall to earth if dropped by hand directly from the same altitude as the rifle's muzzle. 'Effective range' means that the projectile must still be able to cause some degree
      • Re:RTFA! (Score:5, Interesting)

        by Detritus (11846) on Monday May 26, 2003 @11:20AM (#6040668) Homepage
        A 150 grain bullet from a 30-06 rifle can reach 9330 feet (2844 meters) when fired straight up. Julian Hatcher, who became the Chief of Ordinance for the U.S. Army in World War II, investigated this and many other ballistics questions.
        • Re:RTFA! (Score:5, Insightful)

          by yunfat (200898) <.taran. .at. .mac.com.> on Monday May 26, 2003 @12:07PM (#6040859)
          Well, that may be true, but the ballon itself would be sheilded by the best kevlar composites available, I am assuming multiple redundant layers, and possibly armoring in some places. Trust me, it won't be easy to shoot down, and a 30-06 makes a lot of noise, its federal time and a beat down with the patriot act if you get caught in the US, Nothing to sneeze at. In the UK guns are strictly controlled, very few people have 30-06's. Probably even less in other parts of europe. I'm not saying its impossible, but perhaps the thing is so damn cheap that if you dont tear a big ass hole in it, they just ease it back down to ground in a somewhat controlled manner, put up a spare, and patch the blimp you shot... the actual gondola, where the communications equipment seems to be housed, looks like it could be heavily sheilded to me. That would be tough to destroy, the blimp itself is merely a floatation device, and looks like it costs very little to make, even a kevlar reinforced version like the one I described. Also... I'm guessing the would have dummy/redundant blimps. Multiple shots from a 30-06 will attract everyone within a 5 mile radius. Good luck.
          • I doubt it! (Score:5, Insightful)

            by A nonymous Coward (7548) * on Monday May 26, 2003 @12:24PM (#6040932)
            You need a good grounding in practical aeronautics, like weight. I doubt very much these balloons would have any kevlar armor. Keerist, a balloon is a huge thing! The German balloons of WW I were military weapons going in harm's way and had no armor, do you really think anyone is going to armor a com balloon where every penny counts?

            They may well compartmentalize the bag, but all that will mean is that it has to come down for repair when the bag is peirced, and they will be able to do that under some kind of graceful degradation control. Still a DoS. A mission kill doesn't necesarily mean destruction.

            No, the communication gondola won't be shielded. Weight, weight, weight. There's a reason airplanes use so much expensive equipment and materials, they want to save weight, and as expensive as that is, it's cheaper than a bigger engine and wings, or bag in this case.
          • by Arker (91948)

            In addition to the errors the other poster pointed out in your logic, I really must point out that you don't have to have a legally obtained hunting rifle to poke holes in a balloon like that. It wouldn't be all that difficult to assemble a weapon with the requisite capabilities from materials easily available in any little hamlet. A hunting rifle, actually, would be far from the best choice. Rockets that can reach that far with sufficient accuracy can be made cheaply and easily, and they could even be rigg

        • A 150 grain bullet from a 30-06 rifle can reach 9330 feet (2844 meters) when fired straight up.

          I'm curious. How did they measure this?

      • by reality-bytes (119275) on Monday May 26, 2003 @12:06PM (#6040858) Homepage

        Yes, no need for high powered weapons when you apply the Black & Decker 4 1/2" Angle Grinder [blackanddecker.com] directly to the tether!!

        Alright, alright, you do actually have to be inside the mooring compound to do it but if you are prepared to go running round the English countryside with large, high-powered rifles, this should be small-fry! ;)
    • Wireless Surfer:
      Hey... hey, my download speed's really getting quite good now... whoa, 5 MB/sec! Wow! This is unbelievable! This--hey, what's that? Hey, look out! Look--
    • Let's suppose, for a moment, that someone actually did shoot one of these things down. What would happen? The blimp would gradually sink to the ground. The hole would be patched, and the blimp would be sent back up to do its job. Downtime < 24 hours. Better than many DSL providers, I'd bet.

      But, of course, people wouldn't do this, any more than they would do a hundred or a thousand other rather ineffective acts of terrorism. You could use the same high powered rifle and shoot down hi-tension electrical w

      • Downtime

        Hrm. You must have really shitty DSL providers. When I had DSL, I paid a moderate price for a home 512/256kbps service (£25/month I think), and never had ANY downtime, despite being connected nearly 24/7.
    • Damn good pellet gun to traverse 1.5 km (and at an angle of intercept unless you're directly beneath the target, in which case a pair of wirecutters would be more appropos).

      But, it reminds me of the anti-aircraft weapons the British used in WWII...you know, the ones on tethers that the German Luftewaft (or "Luftwafte", or, "Lift what? I'm in the air force!") would fly into and trigger explosions... IOWs, this would be a real set back for private aviation; and the first time a jetliner hit one would really

  • baloony (Score:2, Funny)

    this story is just a load of hot air
  • by 1nv4d3r (642775) on Monday May 26, 2003 @10:58AM (#6040561)
    Is this on the horizon?

    No, it's overhead.
  • Not worth it... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by CommieLib (468883) on Monday May 26, 2003 @10:59AM (#6040565) Homepage
    I have to say...I've got DSL. Would I pay $10 more for twice the speed? Nope. I, like most people, I think, divide expectations into two categories: instant and "a while". I expect page loads to be instant, and I expect a video I'm downloading to take "a while". DSL delivers on these. So basically, the improvement only comes in "a while".

    In that "a while", I go off and do other things, perhaps (gasp!) even leaving the computer for a while. That that will take 5 mintues rather than 10, or 30 seconds rather than a minute delivers very little value to me, and I think "good enough" might really crowd out "best" here.
    • Re:Not worth it... (Score:3, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward
      see, the idea is that you could share the price in your whole village, which means that your connection would be cheap and fast, especially if you live far of any citys, and thus might not be able to get broadband (cheaply)

      just because you dont need it doesn't mean nobody does
    • by Hershmire (41460) on Monday May 26, 2003 @11:06AM (#6040610) Homepage
      People will subscribe to this for the exact same reason you subscribe to DSL. Remember on 56k when web pages were "instant", "a while" was for music (if you're lucky), and video was "read war and peace and see if the stream is done downloading"? $10 more/month is definitely worth double bandwidth.
      • by fruey (563914)
        There's what I might call a "comfort zone" beyond which any faster is indeed irrelevant. An old survey set it at something like 256kbps, it's maybe still that for most web surfing.

        Tolerances will vary depending on content - but unless you're a hardcore MPEG/DivX downloader then higher than 512 is not particularly different *today* until multimedia content producers force higher bandwidth, and this is not worth it for most, until enough people have very high speed access and the infrastructure to handle it

      • Remember on 56k ...

        Yes, but DSL in most areas is on the order of twenty times faster than that old 56K modem. A further factor of two is going to be virtually unnoticed by most users. I suppose there may be a few power users who need the extra bandwidth. Of course, their total bandwidth usage--in GB per month--is probably way above average, so they'll have to pay for that, as well...

    • Until recently I was on a 1Mbit connection. After moving house, I downgraded to half that, and I do notice the difference, especially when downloading ISOs, or when posting X sessions home. Will I pay the £10 more a month to go back to the 1Mbit? Maybe. If it were only £5 there would be no hesitation.
    • Re:Not worth it... (Score:5, Informative)

      by E-prospero (30242) on Monday May 26, 2003 @11:30AM (#6040720) Homepage
      I don't speak for this particular company, but I would guess that you are not their target audience. They are trying to solve the last mile problem for people that can't get DSL at present - i.e., those that are too far from an exchange, or those that live in an area whose broadband demands are sufficiently small that the local exchange isn't going to get upgraded, or whose existing cable infrastructure won't handle a DSL signal.

      This is no small problem. I live in a residential area in a populous state capital (>1 million residents), yet I can't get DSL because my local phone infrastructure doesn't support it. An airborne solution gets around this limitation; I just need to put an antenna on my roof. I would give my right arm for this kind of solution where I live. As it is, I'm limited to a 56k dialup.

      Russ %-)
    • by snooo53 (663796) on Monday May 26, 2003 @11:40AM (#6040755) Journal
      I'd definitely tend to agree with you. Our cable service is certainly 'good enough' for my web browsing and downloading needs.

      However I think the real killer here is the wireless aspect. Imagine paying for one broadband account that you can use anywhere sans wires. For me I'd plunk down the extra $10 without a second thought.

      regards,
      Nik
  • donald duck (Score:5, Funny)

    by Rxke (644923) on Monday May 26, 2003 @10:59AM (#6040568) Homepage
    Biggest problem I see; these balloons are filled with helium, when they use a pipe to channel the voices thru these things, won't they come back sounding like that nervous duck? I dunno, IANAE (engineer)
    • It's actually not a problem. If your voice were to pass from air to helium and back to air again, it would sound exactly the same. Actually, even if the listener were immersed in helium the perceived pitch should be the same.

      It is only when the speaker is breathing helium (raising the speed of sound around the vocal cords) that there will be a higher pitch observed.

      And yes, I know you were kidding. ;)

  • RFC 1149 (Score:5, Funny)

    by FrostedWheat (172733) on Monday May 26, 2003 @10:59AM (#6040569)
    Ahh, the upgrade to RFC 1149 [ietf.org] is here at last.
  • by borgdows (599861) on Monday May 26, 2003 @11:01AM (#6040578)
    We'll reward 50,000$ anyone who shoots those evil pirate balloons!

    Remember: When you are download MP3, you are downloading COMMUNISM !!!

    -- This message is brought to you by the RIAA/MPAA.
  • whats stopping it? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday May 26, 2003 @11:02AM (#6040586)
    from the article:
    The technology behind the idea has been around for years, with the US Government operating several such aerostats as communication systems on its borders and the US military employing similar technology for about 50 years.

    so, it seems to be pretty workable, and according to the article its not to expensive. so whats the reason this isn't already wildly addapted? i didn't see any problems mentioned in the article
    • by sleeper0 (319432)
      I am thinking the problem of wind moving these things around is grossly understated by the article. Minimum distance for one of these things would be 1.5km but if they say they only need 18 total that means they must expect distances of 20-30km+ which is quite a distance. Customer sites would need tight beam directional antennas to go that far that would lose signal as soon as the balloon moved much at all. They say in the article that they will have an "antenna stabilisation system" that keeps the ballo
      • They say in the article that they will have an "antenna stabilisation system" that keeps the balloon in place even if its getting blow around, but could it really keep it in place within a few feet considering it's on a 1.5km tether?

        I doubt it keeps the balloon in place, just angles the balloon's antenna (or they have solid state aiming systems). I don't know how long it would take to re-aim after a gust though, is it 30ms worth of lost packets? A half second? Eight seconds? (if it is a second or tw

  • by idfrsr (560314) on Monday May 26, 2003 @11:10AM (#6040620)

    Ok,just to stop silly pellet gun comments... it would take one that could shoot 1.5km accurately (according to article that is how high they are and for the metrically impaired that's just under a mile), so that would be one nifty pellet gun. But it wouldn't suprise me in one such toy weapon existed in the US....

    The article only mentions the opportunity for UK coverage but what about countries where laying fiber/cable would be a huge undertaking. 3rd World contries could certainly benefit from this kind of technology, if it works as well as they say it does. Wiring countries without the usual western infrastructure might be much more cost effective with this approach. Though I am not holding my breath on this... though the article does mention that the US military uses things like these...

    • And yes, this is meant seriously :)

      One-word question:

      Airplanes?
      • One-word question:

        Airplanes?


        That's what I was thinking as I read this article. Fortunately most commercial airplanes fly well above 1.5km, just make sure you don't put these balloons near an airport. General aviation planes (that is, small private planes, not commercial airliners) often fly much lower, and these balloons would be a serious safety threat for them. The balloons would need to be brightly marked and lighted, and there presence would need to be depicted on aeronautical charts. Assuming that's done, however, and assuming there are not so many of them that flying at 1.5km or below becomes an obstacle course, I think it would be okay. If they put VOR transmitters (something pilots use for navigation) in the balloons, they could actually benefit pilots.

        Of course, the main benefit as far as internet access goes is to be able to reach rural areas. My guess is that the speed claims would not hold true in real usage, and concerns about privacy and security would be significant. For those in rural areas that have little other choice, this could be one of the few choices they have.
      • A Bombardier Learjet 45 cruises at 43,000 feet.
        A Boeing 777 cruises at 35,000 feet.
        A 1999 Cessna Skyhawk SP cruises at 14,000 feet
        A Grumman AA5A (2 passenger) cruises at 8,500 feet.

        These ballons would fly at under 5000 feet.

        Now, look out your window. See any airplanes? It's not like the sky is thick with them. I live within 5 miles of a medium sized commercial airport (just a little too small for trans-atlantic/continental flights), and I barely ever hear an airccraft, let alone see one.

        Now consider some
        • by jheinen (82399) on Monday May 26, 2003 @12:02PM (#6040836) Homepage
          "A 1999 Cessna Skyhawk SP cruises at 14,000 feet"

          IAAP and FWIW those altitudes are service ceilings. In other words it's the maximum altitude the airplane can effectively achieve. In practice general aviation aircraft almost never go that high (in fact, above 12,500 ft. FAA regulations require the use of supplemental oxygen). Normal cruising altitudes for light aircraft are typically between 2000-9000 ft, putting these balloons right in the airspace GA planes fly.

          It doesn't really matter though, since their location will appear on charts so pilots can avoid them. The fact is, at least in the US, there are all sorts of towers, mountains, and whatnot that poke up high enough to be a potential hazard. But since they are stationary and their locations well known, they do not pose an undue threat. I am far more concerend about other airplanes than fixed obstacles. They are small and they move. But the sky is a very big place, and due diligence applied to what's going on outside of the cockpit will help ensure your safety.
    • Okay, the balloons are only a mile up and are meters across. It'd be very easy to launch a DoS attack against them with conventional weaponry. And because it's America, you know how millions of us have firearms, right?

      Imagine some redneck interrupted in the middle of a WWE download because the connection goes out. And imagine said redneck running outside in frustration and opening fire on the broadband balloon with his .45 caliber converted automatic rifles.
      • by TheSync (5291) on Monday May 26, 2003 @01:26PM (#6041242) Journal
        Neglecting air resistance (hah!) .50 BMG [mst2-vietnam.info] bullets are about 700 grains or 0.045 kg. Muzzle velocity is around 1000 m/s, for kinetic energy of 22500 J. This implies a .50 BMG bullet could reach an altitude of 51,000 m maximum (at which point it would have zero velocity). But of course, you can't neglect air resistance, especially with fast-moving objects as it increases faster than linearly with velocity.

        I've seen a study [www.mega.nu] looking at the maximum trajectory of .50 BMG for surface-to-surface use, which is generally around 25,000 feet surface range and maximum height of around 8000 feet. At maximum height, horitzontal velocity is down to 100 m/s.

        Another study [sprynet.com] has shown that rifle bullets tend to reach a maximum altitude of about 9000 feet.

        Finally, here [cfis.org] there is a quote about an Army firing table for the Browning M2 with .50 BMG for anti-aircraft use, which tops out at 7500 feet altitude (but within 400 yards horizontal distance).

        So extrapolating, I think it is safe to say that .50 BMG will generally not reach higher than 10,000 feet, and will probably be fairly useless in engaging targets much more than 7500 feet high.
    • Ok,just to stop silly pellet gun comments...

      Humor needs no basis in fact. :)
    • they oughta float some above Iraq, Baghdad as a stopgap measure until communications infrastructure is mended. come to think of it, would come in very handy in desaster stricken places, like Algeria, where earthquakes destroyed a lot of the infrastructure.
      • they oughta float some above Iraq, Baghdad as a stopgap measure until communications infrastructure is mended. come to think of it, would come in very handy in desaster stricken places, like Algeria, where earthquakes destroyed a lot of the infrastructure.

        Or NYC, on 9/11; since cellphone base units need to be high up, a lot of them were mounted on top of one of the two towers, knocking out cellphone service. Add the power outage, damaged landline trunks, a load of Verizon telco switches and the huge surge

    • i think third world countries have more important things to worry about than broadband connection. For starters : food, water system, sanitation, medical coverage. Suddenly, broadband isn't that important.
      • water systems, sanitation and medical coverage are all problems which have a heavy information component, and in third world countries right now, the just about the only way to monitor and respond to that information is by having a trained human on the ground (which is why very little of it gets done.)

        Now, imagine being able to monitor water quality and sewage processing flow remotely, and sending scarce resources to solve problems before they become cholera epidemics rather than after. Imagine being able
    • You know, I was looking into Estes model rockets just now. They pretty much are among the only consumer grade projectile that i'm aware that can be used without a license, and without much in the of worry about arrest.

      But alas... they max range atleast for the level 1 model kits is typicaly about 300meters. Perhaps 500meters for a two stage model, and about 800meters for 3 stage models.

      But, this is using their rocket engines.

      "7. SIZE. My model rocket will not weigh more than 53 ounces (1500 grams) at
  • What is more, it is would not slow down as more and more people use the service which is the case with DSL - broadband via the phone line.

    finally, infinite bandwidth...on another note... I'm off to go play with my perpetual motion machine...
  • BAM!!!

    I don't believe he fell for that one.

  • What? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Josuah (26407) on Monday May 26, 2003 @11:17AM (#6040651) Homepage
    From the article: What is more, it is would not slow down as more and more people use the service which is the case with DSL - broadband via the phone line. Huh? I fail to see how just 18 base stations would provide total UK coverage and at the same time be able to provide, say, 2Mbps up and down to all customers at the same time. The United Kingdom has a lot of people in it, last I checked. And DSL only slows down if the ISP's resources are over-provisioned from their point up. Cable is the one where resources are over-provisioned at the last-mile and up. Or does DSL somehow work different in the UK?

    Also, although the article does address the issue of weather, I'd assume that performance must decrease somewhat during an electrical storm as more errors are introduced into the bitstream.
    • ACtually in the UK, DSL is contended at the PVC (IE your local exchange, the back end of the DSLAMs where you get pushed onto the ATM network) where you share bandwidth in a 10mb pipe with the users of up to three other ISPs.

      At present not many users are contended here, but that is officially where your 50:1 takes place. You should, in theory, not be contended at all at your ISP (either at the Home Gateway or their actual internet peering connections) but the cheap bastards do it anyway.
  • Security (Score:3, Interesting)

    by scrotch (605605) on Monday May 26, 2003 @11:18AM (#6040657)
    I doubt the military will be using them - it's an awfully easy target. Not open to a pellet gun attack, obviously, but perhaps to air-to-ground missile attack.

    I assume that eavesdropping would have to be done at their altitude? Or could you listen in on unencrypted communication from wherever you could stick an antenna?

    Perhaps the existing ground level wiring will make a nice backup for customers that want this sort of security.
  • baloons

    Aaaaaarrrrrgggggghhhhh!

  • ah yes, our good friend security would be left in the dust... wireless is inherently insecure, so as long as people are comfortable with it, i guess itll do fine.
  • by reality-bytes (119275) on Monday May 26, 2003 @11:22AM (#6040684) Homepage
    Well, the C.A.A. [caa.co.uk] has approved 2 of these sites in Yorkshire with cables extending to 1500m (approx 5000ft AGL).

    Now, this is all very good and well until they decide to apply for licences in high aviation traffic areas say: West of the Pennines or anywhere within 75miles of Manchester Airport.

    It seems unlikely that the licences would be granted as these things don't just require "Danger-Area" status but a complete DNF area status for serveral miles around. With the U.K. having very little airspace available below the 'airways', this could get to be a major hassle for G/A and Military aviation.

    Note: For those of you not in the UK, airspace below the 'airways' is largely populated by Aerodrome Traffic Zones and MATZ due to the small land-mass and (relatively) high density of major airports.
    • Well, the C.A.A. has approved...

      For confused Canadian readers, the CAA is the British Civil Aviation Authority--it has nothing to do with the Canadian Automobile Association (see also AAA for U.S. readers).

      On the other hand, if these balloons ever need roadside assistance, I don't know where they're going to get it.

    • They could probably get away with adding a few extra balloons in dense urban areas and keeping them at a lower altitude. Considering that the demand for bandwidth would be greater in these regions anyway, this might be a good idea regardless of the air traffic problem.
      • It's not so much the 'air-traffic-problem', more the increased likelyhood of an aircraft actually striking a tether with all the associated unpleasant consequences.

        Its worth noting the majority of G.A. traffic operates on average at 2,000ft and there is rather a lot of military traffic down to 150-200ft. Just this-afternoon, I watched 2 RAF Tucanos near my house skirting the local ATZ at about 300ft - thats only 5 1/4 miles from a major city centre. Now, I estimated them to be running at about 250kts and
  • by da3dAlus (20553) <dustin@grau.gmail@com> on Monday May 26, 2003 @11:28AM (#6040712) Homepage Journal
    [Obligatory Critic Reference] From "Red Balloon 2 -- The Balloon's REVENGE":

    Terrorist: "One more step and the red balloon becomes the dead balloon."

    [Scared kid releases baloon]

    Terrorist: "How did I not see that coming..."
  • Cell phone, (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Openadvocate (573093) on Monday May 26, 2003 @11:41AM (#6040758)
    so, they might as well throw in a few cell phone antennas while they are at it. Oh and a few of those video surveillance cameras that they are so fond of over there.
  • by finrock (634521) on Monday May 26, 2003 @11:42AM (#6040764) Homepage
    networks crashing. Oh the humanity!
  • by 200_success (623160) on Monday May 26, 2003 @11:50AM (#6040794)

    There's really nothing new here except the idea of using balloons. Wireless Internet has been available for a while now. The biggest flops so far have been Metricom (the original incarnation of the Ricochet Internet service) and Sprint Broadband Direct.

    I had Metricom/Ricochet while I was in college. The Metricom radios, about the size of shoeboxes (1/1000 of a VW Beetle), were mounted on utility poles every kilometer or so. It was a great technology that was mostly killed by incompetent management, high deployment cost, and irrelevance as the rest of the world went from dial-up to DSL/cable. The bandwidth was pretty good for its day, but its latency sucked (typically 400ms minimum).

    My dad got Sprint Broadband Direct after ditching DSL. Our DSL was unreliable since our house was too far from Pac Bell's switch box. Also, there is no cable modem service available in our area. So we turned to Sprint, which serves the San Francisco Bay Area through a tower in the Fremont Hills, about 50 km away. A Sprint technician came and installed a small dish antenna on our roof, and permanently aimed it at the tower.

    We have been dissatisfied with Sprint Broadband Direct because:

    • The latency sucks (400ms average)
    • Lots of dropped packets, which I believe are due to the wireless link (10% typical, and worse when foggy)
    The combination of those two factors make SSH use unbearable. We were stuck with it because Sprint requires a 1-year committment to offset the cost of installation.

    The Sprint service isn't for everyone, since it requires a clear line of sight to the tower on the hill, and the right to mount an antenna on the roof. Combined with the high cost of deployment, these drawbacks have forced Sprint to deprecate the service [sprintbroadband.com].

    The SkyLinc system seems to be most like Sprint's. The elevation of the balloons will be an advantage (probably negated by the fact that the antennas are not exactly stationary), but they'll have to overcome the same difficulties that have plagued previous systems.

  • I doubt this would hold up in very windy and/or stormy weather. A baloon is hardly fail safe, especially considering its vulnerability to weather.
    • Re:Stormy Weather... (Score:3, Interesting)

      by TheSync (5291)
      From here [af.mil]...

      Airborne time is generally limited only by the weather (60% standard operational availability) and routine maintenance downtime, which is minimal. Since the aerostats are stable in all winds below 65 knots, the aerostat program provides low-cost, one of a kind radar coverage uniquely suited for its given mission.
  • by Thagg (9904) <thadbeier@gmail.com> on Monday May 26, 2003 @12:05PM (#6040853) Journal
    The biggest problem with high-altitude tethered aerostats is that the tether is invisible to aircraft. Typically, they aren't even lit. And, of course, the balloons move with the wind somewhat, so you can't even be sure what location to avoid. Therefore, you'd have to have a pretty wide area to avoid.

    That said, the US has several tethered aerostats along its southern border [noaa.gov], used to monitor weather, to check for low-flying smugglers and to broadcast propaganda to Cuba. [lockheedmartin.com] The internation border is, of course, an area with strict flying restrictions already, so it isn't too much of a burden.

    Unfortunately, these balloons in England are planned (perhaps that's too strong a word. Shilled?) to be in the middle of fairly populated and high-traffic areas. Cordoning off all of these areas would be a problem, and unlikely to be 100% successful. Right now, people violate airspace accidentally all the time -- but it's usually not that big a deal -- it's just air. Running into one of these tethers would likely be a big deal -- you'd probably lose both the plane and the balloon.

    Perhaps the balloons could be flown far higher somewhat offshore? The US flies its aerostats at 50,000 ft (about 16 km). From that altitude, the amount of ground area seen by the balloon would be almost 100x as great. Private planes typically don't fly very far offshore, so the risk of hitting the tether would be lower -- and in the case that there is a collision the wreakage would fall into the sea instead of a city.

    Perhaps GPS will solve this problem. If all private planes had perfect GPS systems with all airspaces clearly marked and rigged to alarms, then this might work smoothly with the current plan. You'd probably have to legislate that all planes have certificated (or whatever the term is in England) GPS's -- but they would be broadly useful devices in any case.

    Anyway, in the end, the idea of flying relays has been promoted innumerable times -- and it never happens. Cable is, in the end, cheaper, faster, more reliable, and safer. It's not as sexy as this system [angeltechnologies.com] (although sexiness is in the eye of the beholder -- or should I say stockholder) but it gets the job done.

    thad

    • The biggest problem with high-altitude tethered aerostats is that the tether is invisible to aircraft. Typically, they aren't even lit. And, of course, the balloons move with the wind somewhat, so you can't even be sure what location to avoid. Therefore, you'd have to have a pretty wide area to avoid.

      Any decent navigational maps would have this all marked off. When I was a pilot, I used them before every flight. No biggie.
  • Can anyone shed more light on how exactly this works?

    1) The article mentions putting the ballon up 1.5k, and tethering it, yet it apparently remains static in strong breeze. The photo didn't seem to show any thrusters or reaction control devices, so how do they plan on keeping the thing steady? Are there lots of tethers in all directions? Or is "steady" a relative term, and the balloon can float around on the end of one tether without affecting service?

    2) They say they only need 18 to cover the whole of B
  • by OYAHHH (322809) on Monday May 26, 2003 @12:09PM (#6040871) Homepage
    My,

    Broadband is supplied via microwave from about 20 miles away and it works pretty good. I have a pizza box sized antenna on my roof and a cable extending to a cable modem like box. From there it is purely regular TCP/IP.

    On the other end my understanding is that they have an array of transmitters on one big pole at the top of a mountain. Each transmitter broadcasts to a certain swath of the coverage area.

    Now substitute the mountain with a balloon and you have essentially the same system.

    But, as has been mentioned before, what about the weather and aviation issues (I could just see these balloons becoming prime targets for lunatic suicidal pilots).

    If the signal could be transmitted from already existing cell phone towers without line-of-sight issues it seems that that would be a far preferable way to approach the problem.

    My broadband setup proves that laying cable is just lame.

    Has anybody ever looked at the manual for a police scanner? Did you notice how much spectrum is provided to railways, forestry service, etc. etc.? And did you try to listen in on a railway conversation? I programmed my scanner to pick up the railroads and I heard nothing from them for about a month. I want some of that spectrum!

  • by Galahad (24997)
    Is this on the horizon

    No, it's overhead.

  • The UK isn't the USA, you know - there's hardly any unrestricted airspace round here, and these things will add another set of hazards.

    Soon there'll be nowhere left to fly ...
  • Better solutions. (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward

    What problem is this supposed to address ?

    Remember, we already have 100% coverage for UHF television, from a large number of extremely tall towers. If it was simply a matter of getting internet transceivers up high, the infrastructure already exists to do it.

    But it isn't.

  • by n9fzx (128488) on Monday May 26, 2003 @01:05PM (#6041144) Homepage Journal
    Al Haig's company (yes, he really is In Charge) Sky Station [skystation.com] has been talking about this for years now. Might sound a bit hokey, but it's just an extension of the Aerostat technology that's been used for the past decade to provide better radar coverage for the Gulf of Mexico. And, it's one heck of a lot cheaper to put up another balloon to replace a failure than to launch another satellite...
  • Weather it would work or not is still up in the air. Air Traffic concerns cloud the issue. These current marketers appear to be filled with hot air. And if a project actully flies, I bet the company that hits the ground first will have a monopoly. They will see that the skys the limit on profits, and the rates they charge will ballon. I do believe that at least in the US, any real attempt to do this will become a lightning rod for counterversy.
  • IMHO ... (Score:4, Insightful)

    by tyroneking (258793) on Monday May 26, 2003 @01:26PM (#6041241)

    Seems like a great idea, a neat way of overcoming the last-mile and bringing broadband to a lot more people in the UK.

    IMHO, major obstacles stand in its way:

    1) Cost. Each balloon may take millions [newswireless.net] (of UK pounds [sciencecityyork.org.uk]) to put up so any cost savings assume a sufficient subscriber base; and don't forget the satellite-TV style transceiver dish required [skylinc.co.uk] for each customer site. Once the first one goes up, what's to stop existing providers dropping their prices to compensate?

    2) Available bandwidth. Isn't unlikely that the system will "not slow down as more and more people use the service" [bbc.co.uk], especially as SkyLinc themselves state that the system is scaleable [skylinc.co.uk] (i.e. why would it need to be scalable if performance never degraded with load?)

    3) Weather. As every English-person knows, the weather in the UK can be erratic and extreme (for example, more tornadoes per unit area than anywhere in the world [bbc.co.uk]). Relying on an "antenna stabilisation system" may sound like a good idea, and it may even work, but who would believe it enough to spend the installation fee on it?

    4) Coverage. Despite the article's optimistic "18 base stations" providing "total UK coverage, from densely populated towns to the remotest cottage in the Scottish Highlands" the SkyLinc website claims only "87% of UK SME business locations" [skylinc.co.uk] for the same number of base stations - which I suspect counts out most remote locations.

    5) CAA approval - SkyLinc might expect to make most money out of densely populated areas, but as these are often near airports what's the chance of CAA approval in all but a couple of test sites?

    Of course, it serves the UK govt. to support this scheme and make encouraging sounds about it. At the very least it will stop most people from wondering why the govt. pushes 'broadband Britain' but allows a practical monopoly, paid for by the taxpayer, to slow the spread of broadband (hey, even remote cottages in the Scottish Highlands have BT phone lines).

    Personally, I'm all for the idea, but I don't think it will ever get off the ground but if Guy Kewney says/implies/suggests it's a good idea [newswireless.net] then who am I to disagree! Hey, I even like the idea of having my own balloon to tow 'behind' my car [skylinc.co.uk] in case of emergencies and traffic jams.

  • by pjt48108 (321212) <pjt48108@noSPaM.yahoo.com> on Monday May 26, 2003 @02:53PM (#6041628) Homepage
    First, it makes practical sense. The technology certainly exists. I ponder whether a fully autonomous wireless balloon (solar-powered, etc?) could replace the tethered concept.

    Second, I'll bet BT is disinclined to allow the competition. I know for sure it would never (no pun intended) get off the ground in the USA. You can bet as soon as it reared it's beautiful head over here in the States, the big money telecoms will be beating two paths: one to Congree to dump FUD on the proposal, and another to Tom Ridge's office, warning of some fantastic and fictional security threat posed by balloons.

    There's too much money invested in bad/old technology to allow this idea an easy birth, as much as I regret to acknowledge that reality. I pray to be proven wrong someday soon, though!
  • HAPS "myth" (Score:3, Informative)

    by jroysdon (201893) on Monday May 26, 2003 @02:53PM (#6041631) Homepage
    I remember when my Dad was telling me about this company called SkyStation [skystation.com] in 1997 which was going to do the same thing. I doubted it would be possible. They still haven't delivered.

    Their current FAQ [skystation.com] boasts, "When will the Sky Station system be available?
    With flight testing commencing later this year, Stratospheric Telecommunications Service will commence with the first Sky Station platform deployment in 2005. Sky Station platforms will be implemented in accordance with user demand as expressed by responsible organizations in each country.
    "

    Enter the Wayback Machine for this same FAQ page:
    1998 [archive.org] claims of launch in 2000
    1999 [archive.org] claims of launch in 2002
    2001 [archive.org] claims of launch in 2004

    Stating that a test launch will occur "later this year" (hey, that makes it easier to update the page), and they're planning deployment in 2005. How the hell can they even know when they'll be deploying if after 7 years they still haven't done a test launch.

    Let's not forget StratSat [airship.com] or the Japanese Airships [slashdot.org] for cell phone use. Comon', someone show me a non-artist rendored picture or active deployment with one of these. Until I see that, it's all vaporware left over from the dot-com sucker era. I'm not saying it's not possible. I'm just wondering about it being economically feasible and the unreliable in the atmosphere from ever-changing winds and weather conditions.

    Here is that promised document from China talking about all these other blimp-type platforms (a sucker is born every minute):
    http://www.bakom.ch/imperia/md/content/english/fun k/forschungundentwicklung/studien/HAPS.pdf [bakom.ch]

In seeking the unattainable, simplicity only gets in the way. -- Epigrams in Programming, ACM SIGPLAN Sept. 1982

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