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Companies look to skies for new coverage solutions

DENVER, United States-The solar-powered Pathfinder-Plus, operating at 65,000 feet over Hawaii, has successfully completed commercial tests of third-generation (3G) wireless video telephony, wireless Internet surfing via laptop computer modem and high-definition television (HDTV) broadcast.

The three weeks of tests, which ended 21 July, involved collaboration among the Japan Ministry of Telecommunications, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and U.S.-based SkyTower. AeroVironment, SkyTower’s parent company, developed the unmanned Pathfinder-Plus aircraft, which took off from the U.S. PMRF Naval Base in Barking Sands, Hawaii, in late June and docked with an operating station about 12 miles above ground.

“These tests demonstrate the viability of the SkyTower stratospheric telecommunications platform as an excellent complement and, in some cases alternative, to satellite and terrestrial systems for a broad range of applications,” said Stuart Hindle, vice president of strategy and business development for SkyTower.

“Given the amount of money that wireless service providers have spent on spectrum licenses for both fixed and mobile applications, these SkyTower tests should be of great interest. Imagine launching a single platform, having instant metropolitan-wide market coverage and eliminating the terrestrial costs associated with tower buildouts and backhaul.”

The Japanese Ministry of Telecommunications has been a leading international advocate of using stratospheric platforms as a low-cost, high-capacity means to use spectrum more efficiently, Hindle said. The Japanese federal agency has been instrumental in securing international frequency allocations for what the International Telecommunication Union classifies as “high altitude platform stations.”

With funding from two divisions within the ministry, a consortium of Japanese manufacturers, including NEC and Toshiba, developed the communications systems that Pathfinder-Plus carried for testing HDTV and IMT-2000, in which an off-the-shelf NTT DoCoMo handset was used. Fuji Heavy Industries, another consortium participant, integrated the payloads for their flights aboard Pathfinder-Plus.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) authorized AeroVironment and SkyTower to conduct the recently concluded tests over Hawaii.

“SkyTower believes the platform’s extremely light weight combined with its highly efficient use of frequency spectrum and energy, help facilitate favorable regulatory support,” the company said.

Within three years, SkyTower said it expects to begin its first commercial service, providing fixed wireless broadband infrastructure, and is now “in advanced discussions with multiple and international service providers.”

AeroVironment and its SkyTower unit are not alone in looking to the upper atmosphere as a venue for providing improved terrestrial wireless communications. In fact, another U.S. company, Space Data, could beat them out of the commercial starting gate.

Space Data plans to attach disposable transmitters to the 70 balloons the National Weather Service has launched twice daily for the past 60 years to collect temperature, humidity and wind data as they hover 100,000 feet above ground.

By next spring, the company plans commercial launch of a text messaging service in the U.S. states of Arizona, New Mexico, Texas and Oklahoma, and it intends to provide nationwide coverage by the end of next year. If Space Data obtains the funding necessary to add cellular phone coverage, it hopes to provide this service by the end of 2004.

“The Space Data network will not only fill in urban coverage holes, but also extend ubiquitous coverage into previously uncovered rural areas,” said Gerald Knoblach, chairman and chief executive officer (CEO), in written testimony submitted to the Senate Indian Affairs and Commerce, Science and Transportation committees. The committees held a joint hearing in May to explore problems of insufficient telecommunications on U.S. Indian tribal lands.

Charles Tracy, vice president for flight operations at Space Data, said the company has reached agreements with four Indian tribes to extend telecommunications to their territories. FCC rules allow companies that provide this service to get bidding credits usable in wireless spectrum auctions. In November, Space Data won rights to use a designated frequency of 1.4 megahertz in an FCC auction.

The long-term goal of Space Data is to have its “SkySite Network” serve as a carrier’s carrier that works with existing terrestrial operators to ensure ubiquitous coverage, Tracy said GW

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