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Weather Balloons To Provide Broadband In Africa 179

Posted by timothy
from the how-about-the-rural-united-states-too dept.
An anonymous reader writes "Two African entrepreneurs have secured exclusive access to market near-space technology — developed by Space Data, an American telecommunications company — throughout Africa. The technology raises hydrogen-filled weather balloons to 80,000 — 100,000 feet, which individuals contact via modems. The balloons, in turn, serve as satellite substitutes which can connect Africans to broadband Internet. 'Network operation centers are located close to a fiber optic cable — say, in Lagos or Accra — and a signal is sent back and forth to the [balloon] in near space,' says one of the entrepreneurs, Timothy Anyasi. The technology will also allow mobile phone operators to offer wireless modems to customers."
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Weather Balloons To Provide Broadband In Africa

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  • This will be nice (Score:3, Interesting)

    by stoolpigeon (454276) * <bittercode@gmail> on Wednesday June 17, 2009 @02:51PM (#28364579) Homepage Journal

    to fill the gap until we get UAVs that can stay up for extended periods of time.

    • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday June 17, 2009 @03:05PM (#28364769)

      A weather balloon IS a UAV that can stay up for extended periods of time.

    • by MyLongNickName (822545) on Wednesday June 17, 2009 @03:20PM (#28364989) Journal

      Why do you want to over engineer things? A balloon is easy to make, cheap to make and can stay up for days.

      • by stoolpigeon (454276) * <bittercode@gmail> on Wednesday June 17, 2009 @03:30PM (#28365137) Homepage Journal

        These don't - they stay up for 24 hours. DARPA has people working on fixed wing aircraft that will stay up for months. That's not over engineering - that's much better than this.

        • Let's take the 24 hours as the limit. I imagine if you designed a different type of balloon with a different shape, you could easily increase this. But for example's sake, let's stick with 24 hours.

          According to the article, these things cost $50/each. Predators cost $15 Million. I wonder what a UAV that stays up for months would cost. Even if you got the cost down to $1 Million, you can send up quite a few balloons for much cheaper.

          • Re:This will be nice (Score:4, Informative)

            by stoolpigeon (454276) * <bittercode@gmail> on Wednesday June 17, 2009 @04:01PM (#28365499) Homepage Journal

            The longer a balloon is up - the farther it is going to travel. Anything to change that will drive up costs. And switch around the comparison - so that it makes economic sense. What's the cost of an ultra-endurance airplane compared to a satellite?

            The Vulture [networkworld.com] program is aiming for an aircraft that can keep a 1,000 lb payload up for at least 5 years - over a designated area 99% of the time. That's further out - but it makes more sense than balloons for quite a few reasons.

          • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

            by hairyfeet (841228)

            I don't see why they would have to cost much at all. We are not talking about combat drones here, we are talking about something that will basically go in a little circle-that's it. A big fat wing, covered with solar cells that run little electric motors and the broadband transceiver.

            With a predator you are talking about something that needs to be controlled half a world away, and can pick off targets from high altitude, those kinds of electronics ain't cheap. With this you probably would even need ANY r

      • by evilviper (135110) on Wednesday June 17, 2009 @03:39PM (#28365231) Journal

        Why do you want to over engineer things? A balloon is easy to make, cheap to make and can stay up for days.

        Perhaps because: "The balloons come down every 24 hours due to the limitations of battery life -- and to keep them from floating into territories that don't subscribe to the service. "You're looking at a wide geographic area -- there's a wide jet stream at near space"

        BTW, you'll NEVER GUESS where that quote came from... NEVER!

        • by Hadlock (143607)

          So is this a balloon on a 100,000' tether?

        • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

          by 2obvious4u (871996)

          From the TFA? I wouldn't know I didn't read it...

        • Uuum... whey don't they put some of those new light printed solar cells on top of it. Should give them all the power they need. (Assuming they float way above the clouds and have a night battery buffer.)

      • Re:This will be nice (Score:4, Interesting)

        by Carnildo (712617) on Wednesday June 17, 2009 @04:09PM (#28365579) Homepage Journal

        I'm waiting for someone to build a solar-powered, unmanned zeppelin. If you inflate it with hydrogen, you can maintain altitude by electrolyzing ballast water or by venting off excess hydrogen. A weather balloon might stay up for days; this could stay up for years.

      • by jekewa (751500)
        I'm more interested in the wireless modem dealing with the 18 miles (or more) from the users' computer to the balloon. Surely it'd be easy enough, at least in more populated areas, to put a long-distance WiMAX-like solution in place.
  • by ickleberry (864871) <web@pineapple.vg> on Wednesday June 17, 2009 @02:51PM (#28364589) Homepage
    but with CCTV cameras rather than broadband
  • Interesting approach to keeping them in the right spot. I was curious if they used a line or some sort of stabilization system.

    Nope. They just let them float away. But they come down after 24 hours and are just tracked down with GPS and replaced.

    The balloons come down every 24 hours due to the limitations of battery life -- and to keep them from floating into territories that don't subscribe to the service. "You're looking at a wide geographic area -- there's a wide jet stream at near space -- and that allows balloons to keep on floating without stop," Anyasi explains. "It's cheap to bring them down, as balloons cost only about $50, and since they are equipped with a GPS, it is easy to locate them and reuse them."

    • hmmmm, easy to locate, only cost 50 euro... I just have this image of a guy getting paid to drive around all day retrieving balloons from trees roofs lakes etc to save presumably less than 50 quids worth of material per balloon. Might be easier to just offer a 10 quid finders fee per balloon.
      • Re:Untethered (Score:4, Interesting)

        by fuzzyfuzzyfungus (1223518) on Wednesday June 17, 2009 @03:08PM (#28364795) Journal
        It is quite possible that the balloon(i.e. the actual gas-filled bit) only costs $50; but I'd suspect that the equipment package hanging underneath it costs a good bit more, at least one factor of ten, quite possibly more. I say this because you can, just about, if your time is free, get an ordinary wifi router and a battery to suit rigged up for $50. I'd be absolutely shocked if you could get a proper, tested, setup for a reasonable number of users, with battery and GPS and radio(s) for $50.
        • Maybe $50 US given the exchange rate since it is a US company. On the other hand, if a weather ballon with valuable/interesting gear landed in my yard, it would be mine, and I imagine that would be the case there too. The guy in the polo shirt saying "can I plz have my ballon back" isn't going to go over too well.
          • I suspect that, short term, they'd rely on the various informal mechanisms of dealing with the problem: getting there first, offering the confused occupant a shiny nickel, making up quasilegal justifications, simple bullying, etc.

            Longer term, property rights have a way of being modified to fit technological and social convention. Look at the entire concept of "airspace", the contemporary application of utility easements, and various flavors of salvage rights/restrictions, among other examples. If service
      • by gbjbaanb (229885)

        in rural Africa.... I'm sure its not going to be the equivalent of a short drive to the shops!

        I recall something about this in south africa for mobiles. Te problem with fixed base stations was that they were raided for copper and orther materials, so they thought about putting the station on a tethered balloon. Why wouldn't that be a better solution that 'disposable' weather balloons (unless the coverage was so good for a near-orbit balloon).

      • It's not really clear what is meant by that, but I'm guessing it's like this:

        – weather balloon, $50
        – electronics payload, $unspecified_large_amount
        – launching the balloon (i.e. the cost of the helium), $unspecified_small_amount

        That would explain why re-using the balloons is feasible: If you were just saving $50, it probably wouldn't be worth it, like you said. You want the electronics back, though, because they're probably expensive, and since you're going to retrieve those you might as we

        • by vlm (69642)

          They probably open a valve to let the helium out and try to reuse both the balloon and the electronics pack.

          From http://www.chem.hawaii.edu/uham/lift.html [hawaii.edu]

          A 7 foot dia balloon lifts about a dozen pounds and takes about two hundred cu feet to fill. At about a quarter a cubic foot, it's going to cost about fifty bucks for the helium.

          Helium is NOT cheap... Looking at more than $2 per hour per balloon just for the helium. And helium is not a renewable resource.

          • Hmm, yeah, you're probably right. It wasn't really clear whether $50 was the cost per launch or the cost of the balloon, but your explanation sounds likely.

          • by HTH NE1 (675604)

            helium is not a renewable resource.

            Well, not until we get a fusion reactor going.

  • by courteaudotbiz (1191083) on Wednesday June 17, 2009 @02:57PM (#28364683) Homepage
    weather.com
  • Disaster? (Score:3, Insightful)

    by arizwebfoot (1228544) * on Wednesday June 17, 2009 @02:59PM (#28364701)
    So what happens then when these untethered balloons are floating up into the jet stream and a Airbus or 747 doesn't pick it up on radar and the damn thing floats right into the jet intake, causing an explosion and bringing down 400 souls to their death?
    • So what happens then when these untethered balloons are floating up into the jet stream and a Airbus or 747 doesn't pick it up on radar and the damn thing floats right into the jet intake, causing an explosion and bringing down 400 souls to their death?

      They are tracked by GPS. It would be fairly trivial to keep the appropriate air traffic control authorities apprised of their location, and, given the kind of concern you point to, I would assume that this is mandatory.

      • The balloons will/should carry a transponder that identifies them on all radars pinging them.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by jo42 (227475)

      When was the last time a passenger airplane flew at 80,000 to 100,000 feet?

      • Re:Disaster? (Score:4, Informative)

        by TinFoilMan (1371973) on Wednesday June 17, 2009 @03:09PM (#28364807)

        When was the last time a passenger airplane flew at 80,000 to 100,000 feet?

        Yeah, but the balloons have to travel upwards through the same airspace that airlines and other aircraft travel through.

        • by HTH NE1 (675604)

          Yeah, but airspace is big. Maybe not really big, not hugely, vastly, mindbogglingly big, but still big.

          And the commuter corridors are not that wide and are generally horizontal while these balloons travel more or less vertically at that altitude, so when they do intersect, they do so rather briefly, and show up on radar.

    • by charlesnw (843045)

      Um..... last I checked, planes don't fly at 80,000 feet. They fly between 25 and 35 thousand feet.

      • by stevied (169) *
        No, but AFAICT they haven't discovered a way of teleporting the balloons from the ground straight up into the stratosphere. Especially given that the lifecycle is only 24 hours, they're going to spend quite a lot of time ascending and descending.
    • Re:Disaster? (Score:5, Informative)

      by 0x000000 (841725) on Wednesday June 17, 2009 @03:08PM (#28364801)

      As I am not familiar with African law, just with FAA flight regulations here in the United States.

      Having been on a near space team (http://nearspace.0x58.com), and having launched two near space balloons, 92,999 ft, and 83,000 ft I can tell you that they pose no problems for jet liners. The balloons are big enough to be spotted by any pilot worth his salt, and they only stick around the altitude where jets fly in the first place for just a minute or so because they ascend so fast.

      Also, depending on the weight in the United States you have to file a NOTAM (Notice to Airmen) which gets distributed to all of the flight control towers, air traffic controllers and will also be distributed to pilots flying in the area you are planning on launching. Anything under 6 pounds you don't have to notify, but it is generally nice to do so as a courtesy. 12 pounds is the limit for amateur near space balloon launches. I have no experience with bigger near space payloads.

    • by T Murphy (1054674) on Wednesday June 17, 2009 @03:20PM (#28364995) Journal

      So what happens then when these untethered balloons are floating up into the jet stream and a Airbus or 747 doesn't pick it up on radar

      causing an explosion and bringing down 400 souls to their death

      Looks like you've answered your own question there. I just hope I'm not on that plane.

      • by HTH NE1 (675604)

        I just hope I'm not on that plane.

        As long as Patrick McGoohan (RIP) and James Caviezel aren't on the plane with you, you're fine.

    • by kestasjk (933987) *
      I guess if you're unlucky enough to have four African Broadband Balloons take out all four of your engines on a passenger airliner, and you don't have enough height to coast to a runway, you're probably doomed anyway.
    • by DesScorp (410532)

      So what happens then when these untethered balloons are floating up into the jet stream and a Airbus or 747 doesn't pick it up on radar and the damn thing floats right into the jet intake, causing an explosion and bringing down 400 souls to their death?

      More than likely? Thousands of customers below will go "Hey, who turned off the f*ckin' Internet?"

    • by rijrunner (263757)

      Well, to start with, the jets you refer to fly at about 35,000 feet. That's 50,000-70,000 feet lower than the balloon.

      Even on launch, it would not be much of an issue. The launch team notifies air traffic control of this and they issue a NOTAM. That is a notice that such-and-such area will be launching something during a certain timeframe and should be avoided.

      Also, balloons ascend at about given known rate. Let's say the balloon is 100 feet long and ascends as 2

    • by oatworm (969674)
      Fox releases the video as part of their new "When Balloons Attack" series?
  • It is funny if we remember that the internet first goal was to be used by the military as a highly redundant/reliable network.

    Cmdr Taco: General McNeil, it seems that we lost the Abidjan balloon.

    General McNeil: I know, it must be the hurricane or maybe the North-Koreans shot it down, well TCP-IP should take care of re-routing traffic to the Brazaville balloon anyway...

    Good idea although, best bang for the buck to make internet available I would assume...

    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      by sexconker (1179573)

      No, the internet was invented by Al Gore for research Universities to share data and information and all information on the internet wants to be free and the fact that for-profit business are on the internet (instead of our beloved for-profit universities) is a shame, they're not even legally supposed to be here because the internet is not for corporations but for the free and uninhibited spread of information among users (as long as they're not idiots, wake me up when september ends and the freshman get a

  • by jollyreaper (513215) on Wednesday June 17, 2009 @03:03PM (#28364753)

    Second thought -- Palm doesn't want anyone talking about tethers.

    Third thought after reading the article -- they're just releasing these balloons and letting them come down after a day in the air? Just hunting the damn things down will be a chore and a half. But this is precisely the market segment the UAV people were talking about. I think the name they were using was aerostat. Idea 1 is using a solar-powered aircraft to fly in U2 territory relaying data. Missions would last three or four months and then the plane is brought back down for maintenance. The idea is that the solar cells would charge during the day and the engines would operate off of batteries at night. The second idea is using some manner of unmanned dirigible where buoyancy is provided by hydrogen and the solar-powered engines are meant for station-keeping.

    I guess this is really a matter of economics -- I guess it's cheaper to hire a guy and a jeep and hand him a map versus paying millions for air vehicles that aren't in production yet?

  • IRC (Score:4, Funny)

    by linuxg0d (913436) on Wednesday June 17, 2009 @03:14PM (#28364893) Homepage Journal
    [1131] Disconnected: Balloon Service Interrupted. Try again later.
  • by 0x000000 (841725) on Wednesday June 17, 2009 @03:15PM (#28364913)

    Speaking from personal experience with the near space launches I have completed with a team (http://nearspace.0x58.com) located in Arizona, I hope they don't make the mistake of putting the GPS on the outside of the box. During our second balloon launch we launched closer to night so that we could attempt to get photo's of the sun setting (and boy did we succeed: http://nearspace.0x58.com/launches/CONNERY-2/pictures/Payload_Camera/ [0x58.com]).

    However what we had not counted on was the fact that the temperature would drop so low that the GPS would literally freeze and stop responding and completely shut off, until it got low enough, and warm enough again to turn on. We thought we had lost our package payload.

    Other than that, since the balloons are going to follow whatever winds they can find, how are they going to make sure that the area they want to service has a balloon above it at all times? What if the wind is going in the wrong direction? As for recovering the devices, will they be water proof? What if it lands in a lake, or body of water? What about high up on the mountain side somewhere?

    Definitely interesting and something to watch in the near future, if this is cheaper than launching a satellite and can be done in a sustainable method and still provide adequate phone service or other services using near space technology!

  • by T Murphy (1054674) on Wednesday June 17, 2009 @03:17PM (#28364947) Journal
    This could give a whole new meaning to "the internet is down". Of course when signing up you have to be wary when they advertise "high"-speed internet. I guess it should work fine though, given the cheap overhead. I just wish it wasn't only planned for parts of Africa, as it sounds like it will be above and beyond what we've got here in America.
  • Solar cells (Score:4, Interesting)

    by castrox (630511) <.es.lezrev. .ta. .nafets.> on Wednesday June 17, 2009 @03:19PM (#28364967)

    Apparently the balloons need to be taken down daily to have their batteries recharched. I wonder, wouldn't 80,000-100,000 feet be mostly above cloud level and be an excellent opportunity to use solar cells?

    The balloons come down every 24 hours due to the limitations of battery life -- and to keep them from floating into territories that don't subscribe to the service.

    The drifting might be a tougher nut to crack though. Rather interesting idea for rural areas actually.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Brett Buck (811747)

      If you are going to bring them down after 24 hours for drift reasons, there's no reason to use solar cells - batteries are dead-nuts reliable and cheap.

              Brett

  • IT is ballooooon!

  • good idea (Score:4, Insightful)

    by GregNorc (801858) <gregnorc@gmail.SLACKWAREcom minus distro> on Wednesday June 17, 2009 @03:25PM (#28365059)

    When you take into a ccount that any time they try and lay fiber it gets stolen and sold for it's scrap value, this is a great idea. Less chance of the infrastructure being stolen/damaged.

  • Not sure (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Stargoat (658863) <stargoat@gmail.com> on Wednesday June 17, 2009 @03:34PM (#28365187) Journal
    This seems like an awfully expensive solution. Does anyone remember Stratovision? [wikipedia.org] It was too costly to keep a B-29 in the air 24/7 just to broadcast. Why should it be any different with disposable air balloons carrying easily lost technology?

    If God meant for cell towers to be attached to balloons, he would have, uh, err, done something different!
    • This seems like an awfully expensive solution. Does anyone remember Stratovision? It was too costly to keep a B-29 in the air 24/7 just to broadcast. Why should it be any different with disposable air balloons carrying easily lost technology?

      Because both the disposable ballons and the "technology" they carry are cheap and easily replaced, which is decidedly not the case with a WWII-era heavy bomber equipped with contemporaneous TV broadcasting systems.

  • Or at least it has the potential to, if they make a rural RF sharing option available. [bushmail.co.za]
  • by tresho (1000127) on Wednesday June 17, 2009 @03:43PM (#28365277)
    The US has been using these along the southern border for years. They are tethered & fly at 15,000 feet and provide radar coverage along the border to interdict drug smuggling by air. They had problems with leaky balloons, and the need to ground them for maintenance, at which time they were vulnerable to bad weather on the surface. There were formal no-fly zones posted in their vicinity. Apparently there was no problem with aircraft running into them. I've driven along I-10 and occasionally have been able to see them in the air, they definitely look like hovering flying saucers.
  • by Anonymous Coward

    I have an important transaction in progress with someone in the ministry of finance. This will maybe help the transaction go smoother!

  • There is also a book called 'The Golden Age of Ballooning' published by the BBC. It's in an attractive hand-tooled binding, is priced £5 and failure to buy it will make you liable to a £50 fine or three months' imprisonment.

    And now ...

  • what is it? (Score:3, Funny)

    by binaryseraph (955557) on Wednesday June 17, 2009 @03:56PM (#28365445)
    "Look its a bird!"

    "Its a plane!"

    "Uh its my ISP bro..."
    • *BANG*

      I wonder if you can shoot them...

      I guess not, except if your bullets reach low earth orbit. ;)

  • Oh, the humanity....
  • by lazn (202878) on Wednesday June 17, 2009 @04:24PM (#28365783)

    My parents live in Africa and get better cell coverage than I do here in the USA. They can drive from northern Zambia to the tip of South Africa and never lose signal.

    So Why not just use the existing Cell Towers to provide broadband?

    • by ls671 (1122017) *

      Are you sure their system is using cell-towers and not satellites ?

      My understanding is that satellite phone are used a lot in Africa, it costs a bundle too. Weather balloons would be cheaper than satellites, which is the point TFA makes.

    • by synaptic (4599)

      So Why not just use the existing Cell Towers to provide broadband?

      Because it's very expensive and sometimes impossible to backhaul a connection to very rural cell towers. They are also expensive to construct and maintain and are a visual blight when you dot them all over the landscape.

  • ...will be the ping/lag. Like trying to play CPMA with someone in UAE.

    Well, better than nothing. :)

    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      by synaptic (4599)

      ...will be the ping/lag. Like trying to play CPMA with someone in UAE.

      Well, better than nothing. :)

      The latency should be much, much better than current geosynchronous satellite options. I wouldn't expect balloon-based repeaters to have latency above 100ms. Compare that to WildBlue/Hughes with real-world latency of 1000-2500ms (they claim 500-750ms).

  • And there goes their infrastructure....

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