Another New Broadband Technology

There is another new broadband technology on the horizon. It involves lighter-than-air blimps operating at about 65,000 feet. A recent filing at the FCC by the Elefante Group, in conjunction with Lockheed Martin describes the technology, referred to as Stratospheric-Based Communications Service (SBCS).

Interestingly, the company’s filings at the FCC seem to go out of their way to avoid calling these blimps or airships – but that’s what they are. Each floating platform would have the capacity for a terabyte in capacity, both upload and download. At a 65,000 altitude the blimps would avoid weather issues and airplanes and one platform would be able to cover a 6,000 square mile area. That sounds like a large area, but the US has just less than 3.8 million square miles. Since these are circular coverage areas, total coverage means areas will overlap and my math says it might take nearly 1,000 blimps to cover the whole country – but there is a lot of empty space in the western states so some lower number would practically cover most of the country.

The company proposes a range of products including cellular backhaul, corporate WAN, residential broadband and monitoring IoT sensors. There is no mention of the possible speeds that might be offered with home broadband and I have to wonder if that’s been thrown into the filing to gain favor at the FCC. While a terabyte of broadband sounds like a lot, it could quickly get gobbled up on a given platform delivering gigabit pipes to cell towers. Top that off with creating private corporate networks and I have to wonder what might be left over for the residential market. It’s a lot easier building a business selling to cellular carriers and large businesses than building the backoffice to support the sale and support of residential broadband.

The company plans to launch the first test blimp in 2020 and a following one in 2021. By using airships and solar power the blimps can carry more electronics than the proposed low-orbit satellite networks that several companies are planning. It’s probably far cheaper to replace the units and one can imagine plans for bringing the blimps back to earth for periodic upgrades

The project faces one major hurdle. They have tested various frequencies and found the sweet-spot for this particular application to be at 26 GHz. The company is asking the FCC to set aside that bandwidth for SBCS. That request will be challenged by terrestrial broadband providers. It’s a really interesting tug-of-war with higher frequencies since frequencies above 20 GHz have been used only sporadically in the past. However, now that this spectrum is being opened for 5G there are numerous technologies and companies vying to carve out chunks of millimeter wave spectrum.

The company probably has an uphill climb to grab such a significant swath of spectrum. I would think that using it in the fashion contemplated from the blimps would make the spectrum unavailable for other uses. The FCC has hard decisions to make when looking at spectrum use. For example, similar ventures – blimps from Google and large gliders from Facebook – have been quietly discontinued and there is no guarantee that this technology or the companies behind it will prosper. A nightmare scenario for the FCC would be a weak deployment of the technology with only a few platforms deployed over major cities – effectively ruining the spectrum for other uses.

If the technology works as Elefante promises, it would be a major competitor to rural long-haul fiber providers. This technology would allow placement of small cell sites anywhere and would compete with the expensive fiber already built to provide service to rural cell sites. The satellite technologies would give me pause if I was building a new rural fiber long-haul network – but then again, these may never materialize or work as touted.

It’s certainly possible that one or more of the new promised technologies like this or like the low-orbit satellites could provide a viable broadband alternative for rural America. But just having the technologies able to serve that market doesn’t mean these companies will chase the market hard – there is a lot more money to be made in serving cell sites and creating private corporate networks. Chasing millions of rural homes is a much more complicated business and I’ll believe it when I see somebody doing it.

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