Google and SoftBank put $250m into wholesale internet from the stratosphere

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Companies owned by SoftBank and Google owner Alphabet have put $250 million into a company that plans to deliver internet access from balloons and uncrewed aircraft.

HAPSMobile, owned by SoftBank, and Loon, owned by Alphabet, the Google holding company, say they want to use aircraft and balloons to deliver wholesale telecoms services to people on the ground.

SoftBank CTO Junichi Miyakawa, who is also president and CEO of HAPSMobile, said: “Building a telecommunications network in the stratosphere, which has not been utilised by humankind so far, is uncharted territory and a major challenge for SoftBank. Working with Alphabet’s subsidiary Loon, I’m confident we can accelerate the path toward the realisation of utilising the stratosphere for global networks by pooling our technologies, insights and experience.”

HAPSMobile will invest $125 million in Loon. Loon will invest the same amount in HAPSMobile in the future, said a joint statement. Last year Google talked of expanding a 4G service from Loon from Kenya to Uganda

Loon CEO Alastair Westgarth explained the reason for the collaboration: “We see joining forces as an opportunity to develop an entire industry, one which holds the promise to bring connectivity to parts of the world no one thought possible. This is the beginning of a long-term relationship based on a shared vision for expanding connectivity to those who need it. We look forward to what the future holds.”

Details from HAPSMobile show that the company is looking at flying its automatic aircraft at around 20km above the ground – about twice the height of commercial airliners.

They said they are working on a common gateway or ground station for Loon’s balloons and HAPSMobile’s uncrewed aircraft (pictured). The common network would use Loon’s fleet management system and what they call a “temporospatial SDN [software-defined network]” for use by HAPSMobile. (By the way, “temporospatial” means the aircraft and balloons exist in both time and space.)

They hope the alliance would “promote the use of [a] high altitude communications solution with regulators and officials worldwide”. Flight vehicles from each party would “connect and share the same network connectivity in the air”.

HAPSMobile has completed its development of Hawk 30, which it describes as an “aircraft-type stratospheric telecommunications platform”. The company is a joint venture with a Californian military aircraft and missile specialist, AeroVironment.

Miyakawa said: “Even in this current era of coming 5G services, we cannot ignore the reality that roughly half of the world’s population is without internet access. Through HAPS, we aim to eliminate the digital divide and provide people around the world with the innovative network services that they need.”

But the companies also pointed out that the stratospheric networks could “provide stable telecommunications networks without being affected by situations on the ground”. That means “the technology is also expected to help assist rescue and recovery efforts during times of disasters”.