Balloons to raise wireless service

Weather balloons could bring wireless service to regions not accessible by traditional means.

One US company has found a creative solution to a difficult problem: how to bring affordable wireless service to people in sparsely populated areas.

By launching weather balloons carrying technology similar to that found in a cellphone tower, Space Data has brought wireless service to rural parts of the US for the first time. These rural regions in the southern Midwest cover such a great span of land that it is not economical to install traditional cellphone towers or cables for their relatively small populations.

While the idea may be innovative, "it's actually a very simple technology," a spokesman for Space Data said.

The balloon launches are conducted by people in rural areas, including many farmers, who the company outfits with the proper (and minimal) equipment and knowledge to do so. Space Data pays $50 (25) for each launch.

The balloons are launched to an altitude of 60,000 to 100,000 feet. From this height, each balloon can provide coverage for a circular area of over 400 miles. Since the balloons operate from a much higher level than traditional cellphone towers, they are not affected by obstructions like mountains and weather.

Space Data has launched over 15,000 flights so far, and things are only looking up.

Building on the success of its wireless delivery, Space Data has developed numerous specialized uses for its balloons.

The US Air Force uses Space Data to improve communications between troops on the ground and pilots in the air. Previously, all contact between the two would have to go through a third party. With the balloon technology, soldiers are able to make direct contact with the pilots, a timesaver that can prove crucial during an air strike.

The balloons have also improved communications between troops on the ground, who used to be limited by the 10-mile range of their walkie-talkies, but can now communicate up to 400 miles.

Another innovative use for the balloons can be found on the tribal lands of the Navajo people, an area that is not heavily serviced by wireless providers. People suffering from diabetes who live in this area are now able to perform their glucose testing daily and communicate the results to health care professionals elsewhere.

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