Hitching Your Telecom To A Star

Who would have imagined that meteors blazing across the sky would be used for telecommunications? But that's the trick behind a clever technology--meteor burst communications. It doesn't require $300 million satellites. Instead, ground-based antennas bounce signals off the long, ionized trails left by the continual blizzard of meteors that rains into the ionosphere each day. So far, only brief, sporadic exchanges are possible. Most trails last just a second or two, and it takes the transmitter a minute or more to lock onto another, limiting use to intermittent commercial or military tasks such as relaying truck positions to fleet owners.

But communicating via shooting stars may soon be more practical. Broadcom Inc., a startup in Mahwah, N. J., has a newly patented, two-way "zoom" antenna that can find meteor trails in seconds--then instantly narrow the transmission beam to concentrate its power. The higher power doubles a trail's usable life. With further tweaking, says Broadcom President John F. Chironna, continuous two-way communications, including voice telephone service, could be feasible.

It should also be cheap. After all, meteors are free--and the supply is endless. Indonesia hopes to use Broadcom's technology to zip fax transmissions among its many islands--for an investment of about $1 million per earth station.

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