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High-flying answer to cell phone coverage gaps?

Eric Frische of Space Data Corp. with a test balloon that may someday be a key to better cell phone and two-way paging coverage.  

By Marsha Walton
CNN Sci-Tech

(CNN) -- Cell phones and weather balloons -- what's the connection? Combining these two technologies could someday mean more widespread, and more stable connections for mobile phone users. That annoying, deal-killing, "no service" text on your phone screen could pop up a lot less frequently.

Space Data Corp. is in discussion with the United States National Weather Service to add wireless repeaters to the 70 balloons already launched each day in the continental U.S. to gather data for forecasters.

"Only about 10 percent of the U.S. land mass is actually covered by digital wireless service," says Space Data CEO Jerry Knoblach.

Each of the Weather Service balloons covers a 360-mile diameter circle. A network of those balloons, hovering at 100,000 feet, (about 20 miles up) could fill in the blanks in areas where providing wireless services with conventional towers is considered too expensive.

"And unlike a satellite network, which requires specialized equipment, we work with existing user devices, the pagers and cell phones you carry around today," says Knoblach.

Company developers showed off their six-pound payload at the DEMO 2002 conference in Phoenix, Arizona, last week. For the past 12 years this IDG technology show has helped launch hundreds of new products. (IDG is a content partner with

Humming and buzzing and beeping and blinking here  for an interactive gallery of some of the items on view at DEMO 2002.

Space Data expects to have a network in the southwest United States within a year, first for wireless e-mail and SMS (short messaging) and then expanding to the wireless voice market.

There's a parachute in the payload; after spending 12-24 hours aloft the equipment drops back to earth. Space Data says the Weather Service currently recovers about 18 percent of its balloons.

Mobile commerce

About 20 percent of the 65 products debuting at DEMO 2002 had some connection to the wireless world. DEMO executive producer Chris Shipley says mobile commerce is the next big thing were still waiting for.

Many cell phones in Asia already are equipped with tiny digital cameras. But what are the real practical uses for that combo?

The company Mitigo has plans to add additional capabilities to those devices. For example, aim the lens at a barcode on a poster, and you've just ordered concert tickets. The device could also be used to download a video game, even hail a taxi.

Shipley says Japan and Europe will likely be the best markets for Mitigos smarter mobile devices, since many users there already are fluent with text, animation, even video on their handhelds.

Desktop videoconferencing

Reality Fusion's Web conferencing tool lets participants see and hear colleagues and clients, as well as share data and comments.  

Ever wonder who's paying attention, and who may be nodding off during a conference call?

Reality Fusion has a setup called TeamView that lets users view up to six people at a time, while up to 250 people can take part in the conference call. The cost is that of a digital camera, plus forty cents a minute paid to Reality Fusion for each call. That bypasses the costs of getting the phone company involved.

Along with gauging the interest and body language of colleagues and clients, participants can share comments or documents online, or can instant message individuals with pertinent (or catty) comments about their associates.

E-mail with emphasis

A running dialogue via e-mail can do just that -- run on, and on, and on. The French company Emeris Technologies has built a product that lets users highlight, colorize, and add emphasis to e-mails, instead of just piling on text from the top.

With Annotis Mail, "The comments and the answers are in the same document, they're not on top of each other," says Alain Renaud, chairman and CEO. "The points are highlighted, and it's very fast."


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