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The Subspace Race

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In the still, blue skies about 55,000 feet above the surface of the Earth lies the last great frontier of earthly telecommunications.

Few flights intrude into this peaceful zone of the atmosphere, and the storms that lash the surface of the planet lie thousands of feet below, trapped in an atmospheric shell that hugs the surface.

Through decades of telecommunications development, engineers have largely skipped over the high altitudes of the stratosphere in favor of building out the vast cocoon of copper wire and antennas on the planet’s surface or launching satellites into the blackness of space.

The very thought of fixing some device in the air that would constantly struggle against the pull of gravity seemed an affront to engineering elegance, the laws of nature and plain common sense.

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But in the last few years, a group of engineers has begun looking at this forgotten zone as an alternative to satellites or terrestrial networks of antennas and wire.

At least four companies in the United States are now developing stratospheric telecommunications networks using high-altitude planes or balloons to serve as sort of tall antennas or very low satellites, depending on your perspective. The aircraft would work in shifts, staying aloft for hours or, in the case of some of the balloon proposals, years at a time to provide uninterrupted wireless service.

The idea may seem farfetched, but the enormous demand for high-speed data connections and cellular phone access has begun to lift the concept of stratospheric platforms into the realm of the possible.

Sky Station, a Washington-based company co-founded by former Secretary of State Alexander P. Haig, is hoping to launch its first balloon in 2000, with the ultimate goal of placing at least 250 balloons over every major urban area in the world.

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A St. Louis-based company, Angel Technologies, is set to begin flight tests in the next few weeks of its Burt Rutan-designed high-altitude long-operation (HALO) aircraft. (Rutan also designed the Voyager, the first plane to circumnavigate the globe without refueling.) The company hopes to start offering high-speed Internet access to consumers and businesses starting in 2000. It estimates that a 1.5-megabit-per-second connection--about 50 times faster than a standard analog modem--would cost about $40 a month.

“It’s a viable technology,” said Yahya Rahmat-Samii, a UCLA professor of electrical engineering who specializes in satellite communications. “You just have to view them as very, very tall towers. The market is growing so big that there is a niche for every proposal. It might not serve billions, just millions, but that’s a viable niche.”

Steve Morris, an engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, which is under contract to help develop one commercial stratospheric project, added: “There’s nothing kooky about it. People think this is a black art or something, but it’s all off the shelf.”

The main hurdle for the various proposals, according to Rahmat-Samii, is not so much the technology but rather the fitting of all the disparate pieces together. The pieces exist, he said; it’s just that no one has ever put them together in this way before.

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Ann Henry, a satellite industry analyst for the technology-focused investment bank BancAmerica Robertson Stephens, said a more difficult problem to overcome is trying to find a niche for the technology in the rapidly expanding telecommunications market. She said there are now so many proposals for high-speed voice and data services that there is no great incentive for investors to put their money in such untested ideas as the stratospheric projects.

“The thing that makes me nervous is not so much whether the technology works, but that there are other planned systems that offer the same capacity,” Henry said. “From a pragmatic standpoint, satellite systems are much better funded and everyone knows they are going to happen.”

Dale Ford, a principal analyst with market research company Dataquest, said that even the high-profile satellite projects have met with wariness from investors because of the large start-up costs of building and launching the systems.

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In many ways, the stratospheric projects make sense only when seen in the context of the enormous scale and cost of more traditional telecommunications systems. For example, the construction of the vast web of cellular phone towers that blankets most of the United States took more than 15 years to build and cost more than $46 billion.

The modern alternative to earthbound networks has been satellites, either low-Earth-orbit or geostationary. But launching satellites is expensive, and the systems are relatively complex and fragile.

For example, Teledesic, a Kirkland, Wash.-based company backed by Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates, Motorola, Boeing and others, is proposing a network of 288 low-Earth-orbit satellites that would provide global voice and data service. The cost of the system is estimated at $9 billion. The network requires a large number of satellites since in low Earth orbit, the devices are constantly moving at high speed to overcome the pull of gravity.

Geostationary satellites have the advantage of “parking” at a fixed location; thus, only a few are required to cover most of the planet. But at 22,000 miles out in space, the power needed to send a signal to the satellite and the delay in bouncing the signal back make them a difficult fit for modern two-way voice and computer communications.

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On top of these problems, both low-orbit and geostationary satellites are vulnerable to catastrophic failure. There is essentially no way to repair them after launch, as demonstrated by the failure of a Galaxy 4 satellite in May that blanked out 90% of the nation’s 44 million pager users.

Stratospheric platforms address some of the problems of traditional networks because of their relatively large footprint, low cost and flexibility, although they also raise problems of their own--such as the basic one of keeping a machine in the stratosphere 24 hours a day, forever.

Marc E. Arnold, chief executive of Angel Technologies, said much of the equipment involved in a stratospheric network has already been developed and can be largely assembled from off-the-shelf pieces.

The aircraft that Angel Technologies is using for its system is based on a family of high-duration craft designed by Scaled Composites of Mojave. The electronics, which will be contained in a pod beneath the plane, are drawn from existing equipment used to create wireless data networks.

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The company is using a piloted aircraft, as opposed to an unmanned drone, to avoid regulatory and technological problems. The planes are designed to stay airborne for 18 hours, although pilots will work in eight-hour shifts. One of the advantages to using piloted planes is that they can be diverted to distant airports in case of bad weather.

Arnold said that finding pilots willing to fly for eight hours in the same spot is a potential problem, but the company hopes that by offering a higher salary--from $40,000 to $80,000 a year--they will have no difficulty finding the two pilots per shift needed for the project. Arnold added that the Angel pilots will have a regular schedule--a benefit that corporate jet pilots don’t always get.

“In our case, they get to have a life,” he said.

The flight mission is not so different from a transoceanic flight, Arnold said, except the plane would constantly fly in a tight circle over the same area.

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To complete the network, users would be outfitted with a small antenna to send and receive information. The signal would be routed through the plane down to a ground station with a high-capacity link to the Internet.

Sky Station International has opted for using unmanned balloons as its platform in the stratosphere. The balloons would be able to stay aloft for years at a time.

The company has focused its plans not only on dense urban areas, but also on developing nations where its system could be quickly put in place to provide instant cellular phone service. Sky Station estimates that a platform at 70,000 feet could cover an area of about 625 miles in diameter on the ground.

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Unlike low-Earth-orbit satellite systems, which must have all their satellites launched before the network can be operational, stratospheric systems can be turned on with the lofting of a single aircraft.

At least two other companies are pursuing stratospheric projects--New York-based Skysat Communications and Platforms International of Redlands, Calif.

Angel Technologies’ Arnold said that ultimately, the small scope, simplicity and flexibility of stratospheric platforms may be their saving grace. The companies aren’t shooting for global coverage, but rather tiny areas of influence where they can carve out a niche.

Because of the relatively low start-up costs and the ease of expanding the system, he said, his company needs only a small percentage of the market to succeed.

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“Three to 5% of the market would be a major home run for us,” he said. “We don’t have to be a mass supplier to win big.”

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Times staff writer Ashley Dunn can be reached via e-mail at ashley.dunn@latimes.com.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

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Into the Stratosphere

At least four proposals are being floated for introducing telecommunications relay stations in the stratosphere, 10 to 13 miles above the earth. Planes or balloons would be used as high-altitude platforms to relay computer transmissions or voice calls. The communications “footprint” of these platforms could be up to several hundred miles in diameter. The aircraft would essentially function like a very high terrestrial antenna or a very low satellite. A look at the existing telecommunications universe and what’s proposed:

THE STRATOSPHERIC NETWORK

Planes and balloons: 50,000 to 70,000 feet (10-13 miles) high

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* One company, Angel Technologies, has proposed using a manned airplane to circle above an area for 16 hours at a time. Before the end of its shift, another plane would be sent to take its place.

* Sky Station, a Washington, D.C.-based company co-founded by former Secretary of State Alexander P. Haig, has proposed using an airship that would stay in the stratosphere above an area for up to several years before being relieved by another airship.

THE EXISTING TELECOMMUNICATIONS NETWORK

* TERRESTRIAL NETWORKS: Land-based transmission towers, phone lines and cables

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* LOW EARTH ORBITING SATELLITES (100 to 300 miles high): Must travel very fast, about 17,500 miles per hour, to avoid being pulled out of orbit by gravity. Can circle the Earth in about an hour and a half.

* GEOSTATIONARY SATELLITES (22,300 miles high): One can cover about a third of Earth; most efficient for maintaining position


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