As Japan’s third largest mobile service provider, Softbank has said it is experimenting with blimps that can serve as temporary cell-signal towers for use during natural disasters. Filled with helium, the blimps will hover with antennas attached at about 100 meters high, and broadcast a signal in a radius of about 3 kilometers throughout a suburban landscape. Testing scheduled to take place over the next year through June 2013, and will be analyzing things like coverage area, date speeds, and quality of voice calls. With this coming hot on the heels of the announcement of Softbank’s partnership with Paypal to revolutionize Japan’s mobile e-payment system, it seems that the service provider might be looking to overhaul the country’s entire mobile network system.
As it stands now, there are two type of antennas on the blimps, one that connects to users’ cell phones, and another that communicates with a portable cell tower on a truck that is physically connected to the Softbank network. As long as line-of-sight is preserved, the trucks could be over five kilometers away from the blimps. They are kept in place with a simple guide wire and powered by a teflon coated line measuring only 1.3 millimeters. They can be made in a variety of sizes, but the overall blimp shape remains the same.
Japan often sees its mobile network coverage drop during earthquakes or other national disasters. The combination of damaged signal towers along with the majority of the population all trying to place calls at the exact same time leaves users unable to communicate with their device. Immediately after last year’s devastating earthquake and tsunami, even parts of Japan far from the northern coast were unable to make calls due to overloaded networks, while those in the damaged region went for weeks without service while they waited for towers to be fixed and power to return.
The government’s Ministry of Internal Affairs has already granted permission for Softbank to begin its trials with their 3G network. While the blimps were developed in cooperation with Hokkaido University, on Japan’s most northern island, the testing will be conducted exclusively in Japan’s central Aichi prefecture.