Japanese researchers are developing a scheme to deliver a communications network that does not rely on satellites, using polythene and plastic wrap helium balloons at an altitude of 20,000 meters (around 65,000 feet). With Motorola Inc proposing its third satellite communications system, and Teledesic Corp, Alcatel Espace, Intel Corp and others all intent on filling up the skies with hardware, the move could be a timely one. Far lower than satellites, the balloons would enable mobile phones with lower powered transmitters, which could be smaller, lighter, and emit less radiation. Designed by researchers at Japan’s state owned Mechanical Engineering Laboratory, three eight metre balloon prototypes have been built. A forthcoming Japanese government investment of around $8m will fund the launch of a 20 meter balloon. The production models could be solar powered or powered by microwaves from the ground. The research was highlighted in the UK’s New Scientist magazine. Meanwhile, Washington DC-based Sky Station International Inc, the company backed by a consortium of companies that includes Finmeccania SpA Alenia Aerospace of Italy, Thomson-CSF Communications of France, Scaled Composites Inc, Spar Aerospace of Canada and Lindstrand Balloons Ltd of the UK, is planning to launch 250 balloons as part of a worldwide communications network (CI No 2,906). Balloons, solar powered to keep them on station, will float at an altitude of between 20,000 and 30,000 meters. The first Sky Station is set to be launched in the year 2000. The service will use the 47GHz frequency band for which the company won Federal Communications Commission approval last month. The network is intended to be used for high-speed, T1 internet access, telephone and videophone services and high speed data networking.