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Net access from 52,000 feet

A St. Louis-based start-up is laying the groundwork to offer wireless high-speed Internet access using high-altitude aircraft.

In a plan befitting Ripley's Believe It or Not, a St. Louis-based start-up is laying the groundwork to offer wireless high-speed Internet access using airplanes circling target markets at high altitudes.

The privately held company, called Angel Technologies, will

Angel Technologies says it will use piloted aircraft to create a wireless broadband network that connects subscribers in metropolitan cities.
Source: Angel Technologies
begin test flights in six to eight months and hopes to launch commercial Net access by the year 2000, according to president Peter Diamandis. It is yet another option in an expanding field to meet the growing demands for high-speed Net access. Some analysts call such schemes pies in the sky, while others think they will serve as viable alternatives to fast land-based access like cable modem services.

The company has kept its plan under wraps until this week, when it posted a corporate Web page. "This is based on technology from the Defense Department that has been around for decades," Diamandis said today.

Angel Technologies' air-to-ground Internet network comes as other companies are working on plans to roll out high-speed wireless Net access via satellites. however. Among the plans include the following:

  • Seattle technology billionaires, such as Bill Gates, have teamed up to form Teledesic. The company plans to launch 288 low-orbit satellites by 2002, providing broadband communications worldwide.

  • Al Haig, Secretary of State under the Reagan administration, has formed Virginia-based Sky Station International, which plans to send wireless Internet signals from "platforms," which are actually blimplike devices 100,000 feet above the earth.

  • This summer, Motorola announced plans to launch a $13 million satellite systems network to deliver high-speed data and video to businesses. Motorola's system, dubbed Celestri, is its third major low-orbit satellite network.

    Another product, dubbed DirecPC by Hughes Network Systems, already is on the market. It offers wireless Net access at up to 400 kbps. The signals are sent via satellite to a pizza-sized dish that is connected to a user's personal computer.

    Angel Technologies is building special aircraft for its mission. They are called HALO aircraft--short for high-altitude, long operating aircraft--and will circle a metropolitan area beaming Net signals. The plan requires approval from the Federal Aviation Administration.

    The planes are about the size of a corporate jet; the Net signals draw power from the twin turbo-fan jet engines.

    Aircraft will provide service around the clock. Planes will fly in eight-hour shifts, circumnavigating their target market at a diameter of 2.5 miles. "It's a mission that's undoubtedly boring, but the time frame is equal to a transatlantic flight," Diamandis said. The range of the service is limited to an area 50 miles to 75 miles in diameter.

    While this may sound tedious to pilots, the scheme is more efficient than Net access via satellite, the company contends. "The fact that we draw our energy from jet engines rather than solar power [as with satellites] means that we're not power-constrained," Diamandis added. "It gives us more capacity to serve a region than an equivalent satellite."

    The energy output from a satellite typically is 2 to 5 kilowatts, compared with 40 kilowatts of power from the HALO planes, he said.

    PC users will receive the signals from a 12-inch dish mounted outside a building. Symmetric Net access will be provided at speeds of 1 to 5 mbps for consumers and up to 12.5 mbps for businesses, according to company executives. DirecPC, for example, only offers the high-speed Net access for downloading data; upstream traffic is sent via phone lines.

    Angel has not yet announced a pricing scheme. But it promises that pricing will be competitive with other high-speed Net access options. The company will offer its service through Internet service providers.