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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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  • Olde Idea (Score:4, Insightful)

    by ackthpt ( 218170 ) * on Monday May 26, 2003 @11:54AM (#6040531) Homepage Journal
    We used to use weather balloons for field day. It's ok, until a good wind kicks up.
  • Not worth it... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by CommieLib ( 468883 ) on Monday May 26, 2003 @11:59AM (#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.
  • by Hershmire ( 41460 ) on Monday May 26, 2003 @12:06PM (#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 idfrsr ( 560314 ) on Monday May 26, 2003 @12:10PM (#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...

  • What? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Josuah ( 26407 ) on Monday May 26, 2003 @12:17PM (#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.
  • One-word question:


    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.
  • by Black Rabbit ( 236299 ) on Monday May 26, 2003 @12:32PM (#6040725)

    Sinclair C5, I give you the Segway.

    Osborne Luggable, I give you the C64-SX, not to mention a luggable that Compaq made for a while. (Still got one, somewhere...)

    Robin Reliant, I give you the (Kaboom!) Pinto. Oh, and the Plymouth Reliant.

    As for the steam powered subways, the then Metropolitan Railway was running in London in 1863, well before electric trains had been invented, and in 1890, the London Underground was the first to convert to electric power. Somebody tell this to the good folks in San Francisco, whose streetcars still use a cable drive, and the folks in NYC whose subway didn't get rolling until 1904. (Alfred Ely Beech didn't really count.)

    Britain and Europe may be behind North American standards in technology in some respects, but far ahead in others. Phones, roads and railways come to mind. And if their Disneyesque standard of living is so bad, why does Disney like to copy it?

  • by snooo53 ( 663796 ) on Monday May 26, 2003 @12:40PM (#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.

  • Cell phone, (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Openadvocate ( 573093 ) on Monday May 26, 2003 @12:41PM (#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 Smidge204 ( 605297 ) on Monday May 26, 2003 @12:44PM (#6040771) Journal
    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 fairly remote location that would benefit most form this kind of tech: Namely, places that wouldn't have the information infastructure that would normally be required to support a bust airfield.

    I don't think it's a critical issue. Just mount a beacon light to them like you would with a tower or other tall structure, maybe even a radio beacon since visibility is always a concern.
  • Re:RTFA! (Score:5, Insightful)

    by yunfat ( 200898 ) <taran AT mac DOT com> on Monday May 26, 2003 @01:07PM (#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 @01:24PM (#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 word munger ( 550251 ) <dsmunger@NoSPam.gmail.com> on Monday May 26, 2003 @01:46PM (#6041033) Homepage Journal
    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 wires, or punch a hole in a natural gas pipeline. People crazy enough to do this sort of thing would prefer to do something more destructive than denying internet service for a day or two.

  • Better solutions. (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday May 26, 2003 @02:00PM (#6041108)

    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.

  • IMHO ... (Score:4, Insightful)

    by tyroneking ( 258793 ) on Monday May 26, 2003 @02:26PM (#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 Don Negro ( 1069 ) on Monday May 26, 2003 @03:05PM (#6041411)
    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 to make every piece of modern medical information available to the nurse or medicine man who is the sole source of healthcare for a group of villages.

    Broadband (or more importantly, wireless data access) is potentially a very big deal.
  • by pjt48108 ( 321212 ) <`moc.oohay' `ta' `80184tjp'> on Monday May 26, 2003 @03:53PM (#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!

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