Space Data: Building Wireless Networks With Weather Balloons

Space Data has developed a new way to build wireless networks: with weather balloons. Sure, this approach seems out there. But the military is already using it.

Most people assume that if companies like Google decide to build wireless networks using 700 Mhz spectrum, due to be auctioned off in January, such a build-out would take years.

Actually, thanks to some new, alternative networking technologies, that does not have to be the case. If Google were to adopt a non-traditional approach to a network build-out, it could, potentially, have a nationwide network up and running in a matter of months.

I just talked to Gerald Knoblach, CEO of a company called Space Data, which, for the past three years, has had a wireless network up and running covering Texas, Oklahoma and New Mexico. This is no ordinary network: Instead of installing cellular towers, Space Data has effectively shrunk the technology and attached it — in 12-pound packages — to weather balloons. Because these balloons fly 1,000 feet above ground and encounter no interference, they are able to broadcast cell-phone signals to a much wider area than traditional cell towers. The implications are huge.

Space Data believes it can cover the whole country with a WiMax broadband network with just 370 balloons. That compares with some 22,000 towers that would be needed in a traditional deployment. "A company can save a couple of billion in build-out costs," says Knoblach.

While this technology seems really out there, Space Data already has military, healthcare and oil company customers using it -- and paying for it. In fact, the company, which has raised $78 million in debt and equity to date, is cash-flow break-even. Not bad for a start-up.

Now, Space Data is hoping that one of the winners of the 700 Mhz auction will deploy its technology. After all, whoever wins that spectrum will need to build a network quickly, to adhere to the Federal Communications Commission's requirements for the spectrum.

Who knows if Space Data's idea will take flight. But if a non-traditional player like Google decides to jump into wireless services, it could give a non-traditional network approach a chance.

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