Wireless Web reaches for the sky

A group of overseas researchers trying to extend the reach of high-speed Internet service may have their heads in the clouds, but they say the best way to bring quick connections into hard-to-reach areas might be by balloon, blimp or plane.

The Capanina project, named after the restaurant in Italy where this idea was hatched, envisions solar powered aircraft or “high altitude platforms” (HAPs) circling above an area to provide people below with fast, wireless Internet conduits.

The endeavour aims to solve the “last mile” connectivity problem. Conventional data technologies like DSL and cable modem do not reach into rural areas; it can be expensive for carriers to extend their high-speed offerings beyond urban boundaries. Satellites could provide a solution, but HAPs would be more efficient, according to Dr. David Grace, Capanina’s principal scientific officer at the University of York in the U.K.

“Compared with terrestrial communications, HAPs will reach a much wider area of coverage, replacing lots of expensive infrastructure,” Grace said. “Compared with satellites, a HAP will be able to serve 1,000 times the number of users in a given area.”

Grace said the HAPs, at a stratospheric altitude of 20 kilometres, would be easier to service than satellites since they’re closer to the ground. Capanina would use new wireless protocols, perhaps IEEE 802.16a or 802.20, to provide connection speeds some 200 times faster than DSL.

The project, funded by the European Union, is investigating the propagation and resource management challenges that this high-flying undertaking affords.

It’s an international effort that includes Japan’s Communications Research Laboratory and the Jozef Stefan Institute in Slovenia, but no Canadians. Grace explained that since the money flows from the EU, “there is a strong emphasis on European partners.”

Capanina’s first order of business is to deliver broadband to rural areas across Europe, which it expects to do in the next four years.

Many places in Canada cannot get wireline high-speed Internet service, and carriers like SaskTel say they’re exploring wireless options. Would the Capanina project address the last mile in this country?

“A true solar powered HAP solution may be difficult in Canada in the next few years,” Grace said. “It is too far north and there is insufficient daylight in winter to charge the fuel cells….A tethered aerostat aerial platform, also being examined as part of Capanina, would be feasible, as would a manned, jet powered HAP.”

Learn more about Capanina at www.capanina.org.

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