Cell towers may be replaced by a new technology, but it’s not what you might expect. In fact, it’s an old school solution – balloons. Extend America and Space Data Corp. are two companies that are working to develop disposable hydrogen filled balloons that will fly 20 miles above the earth and deliver voice and data services to a wide diameter area.
It’s surprisingly simple. The balloon carries a communications pod. When it gets up to stratosphere the wind blows the balloon at about 30 mph. Once the balloon reaches the edge of a defined coverage area it jettisons the communications pod. The balloon rises up until it explodes and the pod falls to the ground where someone picks it up and launches it again. Since the balloon is 20 miles up in the air it is well out of the way of airplanes.
The benefit of the solution comes down to cost. Using North Dakota, where the service will first be tested this summer, as an example, it would take 1,100 cell towers to cover the state. Each tower can cost as much as $250,000. Each balloon costs $55 and only three balloons would need to be in the air at any time to provide coverage for the whole state. It would take 9 communications pods in total in order to ensure three were always in place.