Business / Tech

SoftBank and Google parent tie up on flying 5G stations for phone services using balloons and drones

Kyodo, Reuters

Mobile phone carrier SoftBank Corp. and Google LLC parent Alphabet Inc. said Thursday they will jointly set up airborne mobile phone base stations, using balloons and aircraft in the stratosphere, to cover wider areas for next-generation 5G wireless services.

SoftBank’s year-old HAPSMobile and Alphabet’s Loon, which spun out last July from the research incubator of the Google parent, have been trying separately to fly networking equipment at high altitudes to provide high-speed internet in spots where ground-based towers are unreachable.

Loon carries the gear with a large balloon, while HAPSMobile uses a large drone.

Despite internet coverage gaps in rural areas or during natural disasters, mobile network operators, governments and other potential customers have yet to demonstrate much enthusiasm for buying airborne technologies.

Also competing to fill the coverage gaps are several billionaire entrepreneurs, including Elon Musk, Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos. Each is backing separate early-stage ventures that want to beam internet from satellites in near-Earth orbit.

Under their tie-up deal, HAPSMobile Inc. will invest $125 million in Loon to build a telecommunications network some 20 kilometers above ground, they said. HAPSMobile plans to introduce the system in 2023.

The companies have described their partnership as a “long-term” tie-up between one of Japan’s top three wireless carriers and one of the world’s biggest tech companies.

“The system can offer internet access even in times of natural disasters, including earthquake and tsunami, and enhance connectivity in remote islands, mountains and in developing countries,” HAPSMobile CEO and President Junichi Miyakawa told a news conference in Tokyo.

HAPSMobile aims to transmit a signal, via its unmanned aircraft, that can cover 200 kilometers in diameter. Solar-powered and with a wingspan of 75 meters, the airplane can remain for six months at a time in the stratosphere, where weather is mild throughout the year and there is little change in wind speed.

Initially, HAPSMobile plans to offer the system to mobile phone carriers in Africa, Southeast Asia and South America, where internet connectivity is still limited. It eventually seeks to expand the service to Japan, where demand to connect various devices and sensors for use in the manufacturing and farming sectors is growing.

In the deal, Loon will also have the rights to invest the same amount of $125 million in HAPSMobile. The two companies will also collaborate in sales related to each other’s aerial telecommunications networks, in addition to developing products jointly.

“We are very excited about the airplane’s capability and what it can do for global connectivity,” Loon CEO Alastair Westgarth said. “We are poised for an exciting new era for global connectivity.”

Loon has conducted trial launches of balloons carrying base stations in Africa. Facebook Inc. and Airbus S.A.S. are also trying to offer similar stratospheric telecommunications system.

HAPSMobile emerged from technology developed by drone-maker AeroVironment Inc, which owns 10 percent of the SoftBank subsidiary.

Fifth-generation services started in South Korea and the United States this month, while a trial 5G service will begin in Japan this fall. The superfast services enable smartphone users to download a two-hour film in just seconds.

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