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The Internet The Almighty Buck

Broadband Barrage Balloons 287

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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  • RTFA! (Score:2, Informative)

    by Anti Frozt ( 655515 ) <[chris.buffett] [at] []> on Monday May 26, 2003 @11:58AM (#6040557)
    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.
  • by reality-bytes ( 119275 ) on Monday May 26, 2003 @12:22PM (#6040684) Homepage
    Well, the C.A.A. [] 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.
  • Re:Not worth it... (Score:5, Informative)

    by E-prospero ( 30242 ) on Monday May 26, 2003 @12:30PM (#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 jheinen ( 82399 ) on Monday May 26, 2003 @01:02PM (#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.
  • by Thagg ( 9904 ) <> on Monday May 26, 2003 @01:05PM (#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 [], used to monitor weather, to check for low-flying smugglers and to broadcast propaganda to Cuba. [] 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 [] (although sexiness is in the eye of the beholder -- or should I say stockholder) but it gets the job done.


  • Re:Latency? (Score:4, Informative)

    by djh101010 ( 656795 ) on Monday May 26, 2003 @01:07PM (#6040866) Homepage Journal
    The latency would be trivial. Satellite internet feeds have latency because, the geostationary satellites are about 23,000 miles away. With the speed of light being 186,000 miles per second, this distance adds up.

    Consider this - your request for a webpage originates on your desk. Goes up to the bird - there's 23,000 miles. Goes from the bird to wherever your sat ISP's switchgear is, there's another 23,000 miles (more, actually, depending on relative locations on the ground, a bunch of trig, and more math than this point warrants). Great, now your request is back on a land-based connection to the internet. You'll have the normal routing from there, to the host system.

    At this point, the HTML you requested will get sent back to your ISP's gear, sent up to the bird (a third 23,000 mile trip), and down to your system (a fourth trip). We're at 92,000 miles, and all you have is the HTML, which tells your browser which objects to go fetch (graphics, style sheets, and so on). So, a single packet takes roughly 1/2 second just in space, speed of light transit time; let alone the rest of the ground and server-based waits.

    Contrast this to the balloon, where it's about a mile up. Delay there will be 1/186,000ths of a second each trip.

    So, yes, they both have a delay, we're talking many orders of magnitude in difference. Measureable, maybe. Noticable? Nope.
  • by OYAHHH ( 322809 ) on Monday May 26, 2003 @01:09PM (#6040871) Homepage

    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 n9fzx ( 128488 ) on Monday May 26, 2003 @02:05PM (#6041144) Homepage Journal
    Al Haig's company (yes, he really is In Charge) Sky Station [] 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...
  • by TheSync ( 5291 ) on Monday May 26, 2003 @02:26PM (#6041242) Journal
    Neglecting air resistance (hah!) .50 BMG [] 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 [] 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 [] has shown that rifle bullets tend to reach a maximum altitude of about 9000 feet.

    Finally, here [] 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.
  • HAPS "myth" (Score:3, Informative)

    by jroysdon ( 201893 ) on Monday May 26, 2003 @03:53PM (#6041631) Homepage
    I remember when my Dad was telling me about this company called SkyStation [] in 1997 which was going to do the same thing. I doubted it would be possible. They still haven't delivered.

    Their current FAQ [] 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 [] claims of launch in 2000
    1999 [] claims of launch in 2002
    2001 [] 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 [] or the Japanese Airships [] 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): k/forschungundentwicklung/studien/HAPS.pdf []

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