Call it Wi-Fi from the sky.
As Hurricane Sandy battered the Northeast, power outages wreaked havoc on telecommunications networks, knocking out wireless service for thousands of cell phone users.
If a future hurricane triggers similar failures, regulators say they have a potential solution. It has the hallmarks of science fiction: floating wireless antennas from balloons or drones.
The Federal Communications Commission is exploring the use of such airborne technology to restore communications after disasters. Beaming 3G or Wi-Fi signals from the sky may be especially useful to emergency responders in the immediate aftermath of a hurricane, when repair crews are unable reach damaged equipment because roads and bridges are impassible, experts said.
"It sounds futuristic, but the technology is absolutely there," said Daniel M. Devasirvatham, a chief technology officer at Science Applications International Corp.
This spring, the Federal Communications Commission asked for public comments on the potential for deploying wireless networks via small drones or weather balloons, saying it could "further strengthen and enhance the security and reliability of the nation's communications infrastructure."
"We know this technology can work," FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said in a statement in May.
Genachowski added it "would have been remarkably useful" after Hurricane Katrina, when dozens of 911 call centers were inoperable and more than 3 million customers lost telephone service.
Though not as severe, the damage to telecommunications networks after Hurricane Sandy was significant. After the storm, about 20 percent cell towers across 10 states failed, leaving thousands of customers unable to make cell phone calls for days. Some 911 service was also disrupted after the storm. Wireless companies said they used portable cell towers on wheels, known as COWS, as temporary backups. But deploying wireless signals through the air could restore emergency communications more quickly, especially in hard-to-reach areas, experts said.
For years, the military has used drones and balloons to create communications networks in remote places. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has recently flown single-engine planes with broadband antennas to provide backup emergency communications after wildfires in Texas, the earthquake in Virginia, and ice storms in Kentucky, according to Vincent Boyer, a telecommunications manager for FEMA.
But commercial wireless providers like AT&T and Verizon have never used such technology to serve customers after a disaster. And there are still many questions about how it would be implemented.
A drone, for example, would need to comply with federal aviation regulations. And wireless providers are concerned that floating wireless equipment could interfere with signals at cell phone towers that are still operating.
In a filing with the FCC, the CTIA, which represents the wireless industry, said deploying airborne telecommunication equipment "risks doing more harm than good" unless there is coordination between public safety agencies, wireless providers, and owners of broadcast licenses.
In addition, some say the potential of balloons or drones to restore widespread communications failures is limited.
"If you had outages extending for 20 or 30 miles, these technologies don’t have enough range to bridge that gap," said Mitchell Lazarus, an attorney who represents telecom companies.
But Steve Gitlin, vice president of investor relations at AeroVironment, a drone manufacturer, said his company's battery-powered drones could be outfitted with wireless equipment and used by emergency responders to communicate if wireless coverage failed. The company's smaller drones are the size of a backpack and fly below 500 feet, he said.
Gitlin said the company is developing a larger drone -- which has the wingspan of a Boeing 757 -- that would fly at 60,000 feet and potentially provide wireless coverage across more than 600 miles.
"You could cover the northeastern United States with one of these aircrafts," Gitlin said.
Jerry Knoblach, chief executive of Space Data Corp., which provides balloons that deliver telecommunications services for the military, said his company's technology also could deliver service across a 600-mile area.
The balloons, filled with hydrogen or helium, soar about 65,000 feet high and carry telecommunications equipment about the size of a shoebox. The balloons comply with FAA regulations because they weigh less than 12 pounds, Knoblach said. They typically last 24 hours before the batteries run out or thin air causes them to burst, sending the equipment parachuting to the ground. Knoblach said his company is testing whether its balloons could provide broadband Internet to public safety officers after disasters.
After a hurricane like Sandy, Knoblach said his company's wireless service would likely have been overloaded if thousands of customers tried to connect at the same time. Still, AT&T and Verizon could install their equipment inside one of his balloons and allow first responders or a limited number of customers to communicate in an emergency, he said.
"It would be enough capacity for public safety officers and 911 calls," Knoblach said. "It could save a lot of lives."