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Is space the final frontier?

As more companies seek solutions to the limitations of land-based Internet access, will ultimate answer be found in outer space?

A retired Army general wants to launch helium balloons. A St. Louis start-up wants to fly high-altitude planes. And a couple of Seattle billionaires want to fire off hundreds of satellites just outside Earth's atmosphere.

These ideas--all of them serious, some more realistic than others--show just how far companies are willing to go to make money providing wireless Internet access to the masses.

The demand is there, certainly, as consumers and businesses become increasingly reliant on PC

A low-orbit satellite.
Source: Teledesic
notebooks and remote network access. But as good as these extraterrestrial schemes may sound, most of them remain science fiction for the average Internet user.

The obstacles to these futuristic plans are the same as those that stood before Alexander Graham Bell: technology and cost.

"When you talk about satellite access, there are a dozen different kinds of platforms available, and they're going to be significantly more expensive than land-based lines," said Alan Reiter, president and editor of the industry newsletter Wireless Internet & Mobile Computing and a panelist at the Comdex trade show this week in Las Vegas. "Secondly, when you look at the dramatic growth of terrestrial services, people begin to scratch their heads, asking, 'What is the size of this market?'"

David Twyver, for one, believes that it's plenty big enough. And the CEO of satellite conglomerate Teledesic has the finances to pursue his literally lofty goals, with backing from Microsoft's Bill Gates and cellular phone mogul Craig McCaw.

He'll need it. By rough estimates, the Kirkland, Washington-based company projects that it will

High-altitude aircraft for broadband network.
Source: Angel Technologies
cost $9 billion to build its estimated 350-satellite network to reach "every soul on Earth," as Twyver says. But he is quick to point out that high-speed land lines are also expensive to develop and that Teledesic's technology will provide superior service, though primarily for corporate clients.

"I live in downtown Seattle, and I can't get an ISDN line--the copper's not good enough, the wire's not available. And someone has to dig up that street," Twyver said. "ADSL is on the verge of becoming real, but it involves high costs and limits on the number of customers. Cable modems require billions of dollars of upgrades."

While satellite communications are hardly new, his company's technology is markedly different from its Cold War-era predecessors. "Geostationary" satellites now used for commercial communications are stationed more than 22,000 miles up, a height that reduces the risk of interference and allows them to cover an entire continent with a single beam.

The distance has a major drawback for Internet access and other two-way communications, however, because it creates a lag time known in the industry as "latency"--creating the kind of frustrating delays that used to punctuate long distance telephone conversations before fiber optics were invented.

To avoid this problem, Teledesic is planning to cut that altitude drastically with low-orbit

Al Haig's vision of wireless Net access.
Source: Sky Station International
satellites that hover a little more than 400 miles from Earth. It's easier said than done.

"Launching these suckers is risky," said James McAteer, senior industry analyst for SRI Consulting. "I'd like to see what it does to your share price if, all of a sudden, two Boeing rocket launches in a row fail--they could collide with a bolt and be out of commission."

If it does work, Teledesic envisions links up to 30 megabits per second, exponentially faster than cable modems or any other land-based system. But the earliest projections for "maturation" of this technology are five years away, let alone actual service. By that time, the higher-altitude geostationary satellites may have come a long way.

Already, Hughes Network Systems offers Internet access up to 400 kbps with its DirecPC service, not nearly the speed that Teledesic promises but manifold times faster than today's standard dial-up lines. At the Comdex, a Loral subsidiary called CyberStar announced a deal Tuesday with networking company Adaptec to offer "low-cost" geostationary Net access by mid-1998, though it did not give a price. Motorola has invested heavily in both low- and high-altitude technologies with its M-Star and Iridium satellite projects, respectively.

In the nearer term, McAteer and others believe it is far more likely that consumers will purchase services from companies such as Metricom, which provides wireless Internet access for $29.95 per month using technologies more akin to cellular phone connections at speeds approaching standard 28.8-kbps analog lines. But this also is an expensive business, which is why Metricom's Ricochet service is available only in a handful of cities despite the fact that it has drawn the support of financiers like Paul Allen, who is also an investor in CNET: The Computer Network.

Moreover, because these connections work only if they can bounce off radio towers, Metricom faces perhaps the most daunting obstruction of all: local government bureaucracy.

"Their technology requires getting the approval of utilities, power companies, and local governments to put up small transceivers on pole tops," McAteer said. "You need to have these relays every two miles. It can get quite expensive."

And then there are those who believe in doing things more or less the old-fashioned way, like flying airplanes. Angel Technologies of St. Louis hopes to launch wireless Net access by the year 2000 beaming high-speed connections from planes flying in eight-hour shifts.

Even more retro is a blimp-like system proposed by Sky Station International, a Virginia-based firm whose president is former Secretary of State and NATO commander Alexander Haig.

Needless to say, such ideas have been met with an ample dose of skepticism. Hardware issues notwithstanding, companies face the monumental task of developing the software necessary to run such astronomically complicated systems.

"These are millions of lines of code you're talking about. Developing Teledesic software is a lot tougher than Windows," Reiter said. "I think the overwhelming majority of users across the world will be using terrestrial systems for the Internet, even five years down the line."  

Go to: Where the rollouts are