Cell Towers in The Air?

Paul Korzeniowski Tue Jun 6, 7:00 PM ET

Americans' appetite for cell phone service appears insatiable. But expanding cellular coverage with new cell towers can be a problem. The towers are big, expensive and often seen as a blight on the landscape.

A startup firm named Space Data is working on a creative solution to the problem. The company is putting cell towers in weather balloons stationed in the stratosphere.

While the technology is in a nascent stage, it has the potential to help carriers extend cell phone coverage -- without the hassles of conventional towers.

"Cell coverage is still not ubiquitous because it can be difficult to deploy cell towers in some areas," said Allen Nogee, an analyst at In-Stat/MDR. "Approaches such as using weather balloons may help them reach more areas."

Looking Beyond Towers

Building a conventional cell tower can be problematic for a couple of reasons.

Cell towers are expensive, costing from $100,000 to more than $1 million to set up. They also present logistical problems, such as clearing local regulations and finding suitable placement.

Space Data uses standard weather balloons, which cost about $50 each, to carry special purpose cell towers. These towers are small -- 10 cubic inches -- and light -- less than 12 pounds. The balloons travel 20 miles above the earth, well above commercial airliner pathways. Because of their highflying position, the devices cover a larger area -- from 50 miles to 500 miles -- than traditional cell towers.

So far, Space Data has concentrated on the oil industry. It's launched balloons in Texas, Oklahoma, Louisiana, Arkansas and New Mexico that help companies track their vehicles and monitor the production of their oil wells and pipelines. In addition, the company is working with the U.S. military on potential strategic uses of the technology.

Using the balloons for regular cell service could be a harder sell. But it might make sense in certain areas, analysts say.

"Now that carriers have deployed cell stations throughout metropolitan areas, they are searching for ways to reach more remote locations, like Montana, as well as camp sites and parks," said Neil Strother, an analyst at market research firm NPD Group.

While the new approach should be less expensive and eliminate many of the zoning hoops carriers face, it raises new logistical issues. There are questions about how well the systems will perform in bad weather and how effectively carriers can track the balloons and ensure that they stay on track.

"The biggest problem is keeping the cell tower aloft," said Ira Brodsky, president of market research firm Datacomm Research.

After they're launched, the balloons swell from six feet to 30 feet in diameter as they gain altitude. The balloons eventually rise so high that they are out of transmission range. Later on, they disintegrate in the atmosphere.

Before that happens, the cellular carrier wants to salvage the cell tower. So the balloons are equipped with a mechanism to jettison the cell tower and have it fall slowly and safely to earth via a parachute.

Tracking Them Down

Each tower is outfitted with a global positioning system so the flight can be tracked. After the towers land, the carriers send runners to retrieve them so they can be used again. How many of the cell towers will be lost or damaged during their balloon rides is unknown.

There are other challenges, such as the battery life of the devices. The current systems are outfitted with batteries that last eight to 10 hours.

The upshot: Carriers would need to be constantly launching and recovering their cell towers. This represents a large ongoing expense. It's estimated that a firm would have to spend $100,000 to $300,000 annually to support this service.

The approach is expected to take root first in areas that are far off main highways or away from cities.

"The areas that still lack cell coverage are spread out and sparsely populated," said In-Stat's Nogee.