|4550 - How the Airborne Internet Will Work||05/06/2005 - 13:07:58|
The word on just about every Internet user's lips these days is "broadband." We have so much more data to send and download today, including audio files, video files and photos, that it's clogging our wimpy modems. Many Internet users are switching to cable modems and digital subscriber lines (DSLs) to increase their bandwidth. There's also a new type of service being developed that will take broadband into the air.
At least three companies are planning to provide high-speed wireless Internet connection by placing aircraft in fixed patterns over hundreds of cities. Angel Technologies is planning an airborne Internet network, called High Altitude Long Operation (HALO), which would use lightweight planes to circle overhead and provide data delivery faster than a T1 line for businesses. Consumers would get a connection comparable to DSL. Also, AeroVironment has teamed up with NASA on a solar-powered, unmanned plane that would work like the HALO network, and Sky Station International is planning a similar venture using blimps instead of planes.
We've already seen satellites used for broadband Internet access. In this article, you'll learn about the future of the airborne Internet. We'll take a look at the networks in development, the aircraft and how consumers may use this technology in their homes.
The Net Takes Flight
Several companies have already shown that satellite Internet access can work. The airborne Internet will function much like satellite-based Internet access, but without the time delay. Bandwidth of satellite and airborne Internet access are typically the same, but it will take less time for the airborne Internet to relay data because it is not as high up. Satellites orbit at several hundreds of miles above Earth. The airborne-Internet aircraft will circle overhead at an altitude of 52,000 to 69,000 feet (15,849 to 21,031 meters). At this altitude, the aircraft will be undisturbed by inclement weather and flying well above commercial air traffic.
Networks using high-altitude aircraft will also have a cost advantage over satellites because the aircraft can be deployed easily -- they don't have to be launched into space. However, the airborne Internet will actually be used to compliment the satellite and ground-based networks, not replace them. These airborne networks will overcome the last-mile barriers facing conventional Internet access options. The "last mile" refers to the fact that access to high-speed cables still depends on physical proximity, and that for this reason, not everyone who wants access can have it. It would take a lot of time to provide universal access using cable or phone lines, just because of the time it takes to install the wires. An airborne network will immediately overcome the last mile as soon as the aircraft takes off.
The airborne Internet won't be completely wireless. There will be ground-based components to any type of airborne Internet network. The consumers will have to install an antenna on their home or business in order to receive signals from the network hub overhead. The networks will also work with established Internet Service Providers (ISPs), who will provide their high-capacity terminals for use by the network. These ISPs have a fiber point of presence -- their fiber optics are already set up. What the airborne Internet will do is provide an infrastructure that can reach areas that don't have broadband cables and wires.
In the next three sections, we will take a look at the three aircraft that could be bringing you broadband Internet access from the sky.
A HALO Over Head
The Proteus plane was developed by Scaled Composites. It is designed with long wings and the low wing loading needed for extended high-altitude flight. Wing loading is equal to the entire mass of the plane divided by its wing area. Proteus will fly at heights of 9.5 and 11.4 miles (15.3 and 18.3 km) and cover an area up to 75 miles (120.7 km) in diameter. The plane still needs to receive approval from the Federal Aviation Administration.
At the heart of Angel's Proteus planes is the one-ton airborne-network hub, which is what allows the plane to relay data signals from ground stations to your workplace and home computer. The airborne-network hub consists of an antenna array and electronics for wireless communication. The antenna array creates hundreds of virtual cells, like mobile-phone cells, on the ground to serve thousands of users. The payload is liquid-cooled and operates off of about 20 kilowatts of DC power. An 18-foot dish underneath the plane is responsible for reflecting high-speed data signals from a ground station to your computer.
Each city in the HALO Network will be allotted three piloted Proteus planes. Each plane will fly for eight hours before the next plane takes off. Angel CEO Marc Arnold says his company has identified 3,500 airports in the United States that can meet HALO's operational needs. After takeoff, the Proteus plane will climb to a safe altitude, above any bad weather or commercial traffic, and begin an 8-mile loop around the city. Each plane will accommodate two pilots, who will split flying duties during their eight-hour flight.
Floating On Air
Each blimp will be equipped with a telecommunications payload to
provide wireless broadband connections. The blimps will be able to
carrying payloads of up to about 2,200 pounds (1,000 kg). Sky Station
believes it can have its first blimp deployed by 2002. Each blimp will
have a life span of about five to 10 years. Sky Station says that its
user terminals will enable broadband connections of between 2 and 10
megabits per second (Mbps).
NASA's Sub-space Plans
Helios is currently in the prototype stage, and there is still a lot of testing to be done to achieve the endurance levels needed for AeroVironment's telecommunications system. AeroVironment plans to launch its system within three years of receiving funding for the project. When it does, a single Helios airplane flying at 60,000 feet will cover a service area approximately 40 miles in diameter.
The Helios prototype is constructed out of materials such as carbon fiber, graphite epoxy, Kevlar and Styrofoam, covered with a thin, transparent skin. The main pole supporting the wing is made out of carbon fiber, and is thicker on the top than on the bottom in order to absorb the constant bending during flight. The wing's ribs are made of epoxy and carbon fiber. Styrofoam comprises the wing's front edge, and a clear, plastic film is wrapped around the entire wing body.
The all-wing plane is divided into six sections, each 41 ft (12.5 m) long. A pod carrying the landing gear is attached under the wing portion of each section. These pods also house the batteries, flight-control computers and data instrumentation. Network hubs for AeroVironment's telecommunications system would likely be placed here as well.
It seems that airborne Internet could take off in the very near future. If and when those planes and blimps start circling to supplement our current modes of connection, downloading the massive files we've come to crave for entertainment or depend on for business purposes will be a snap -- even if we live somewhere in that "last mile."
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