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3 May 2019

SoftBank gives Loon $125mn, gets high-altitude unmanned partner

SoftBank’s HAPSMobile wing has invested $125mn into Loon, the Alphabet subsidiary, and in turn snared itself a partner for collaborations in high-altitude network connectivity projects. This comes in especially useful for HAPSMobile’s new HAWK30, an unmanned aircraft system (UAS) that SoftBank hopes can serve as a way to bring cellular coverage to challenging terrestrial locations.

While LPWAN vendors, of both the licensed and unlicensed variety, are targeting these same remote locations, with the U-LPWAN community showing more enthusiasm than the MNOs, they should be bracing for a wave of IoT-focused nanosatellite competitors. These startups are looking to launch dirt-cheap satellite constellations, embracing the plummeting launch costs brought about by SpaceX’s industry shake-up.

In between these two camps, stratospherically speaking, lies the likes of Loon, which Riot has always been pretty enthusiastic about. However, Alphabet’s decision to launch it as a standalone subsidiary, graduating it out of its internal incubator, was a little odd from an IoT perspective, given the enthusiasm for LPWAN at the time. With the looming satellite IoT competition, that point gets hammered home a little further.

But for conventional LTE connectivity, Loon has already proved its capabilities, especially in disaster-relief applications. Loon was often treated with a lot of skepticism, as the idea of a balloon-mounted mobile network seemed like a daft idea, but Loon’s approach has outlasted Facebook’s interest or optimism.

Facebook was planning on using a UAS that was pretty much a solar-powered pilotless plane – one giant v-shaped wing covered in solar panels that could act as a platform for mobile networking equipment, designed to remain aloft for weeks. Facebook sunk a lot of money into this venture, buying and then shuttering Aquila.

Undeterred, HAPSMobile is planning on launching its own version, the HAWK30. HAPSMobile is a joint-venture between SoftBank and AeroVironment, a US startup. The UAS will fly at a 20km height, on its 78-meter wing using 10 propellers, and is intended to serve areas that lack good coverage, such as mountainous regions, island communities, and developing countries. As well as conventional cellular devices, HAPSMobile cites IoT and 5G as focus areas.

So, Loon has netted $125mn from HAPSMobile, and has the option of investing the same into HAPSMobile – although we imagine it would be an equity swap, rather than actual cash changing hands. SoftBank seems pretty happy to keep splashing its cash around, and seems to think that partnering with Loon is a solid way forward.

To this end, Loon and HAPSMobile say that they are actively exploring commercial collaborations to accelerate the deployment of high-altitude networks, ‘with a focus on expanding mobile internet penetration, enabling internet of things (IoT) applications, and assisting in the deployment of 5G.’

As for more concrete details, the pair say that they are now in formal negotiations on a number of elements. Most interesting is a wholesale agreement which would let the pair make use of each other’s vehicles, as well as a development agreement for a new jointly-developed communications payload device that could be mounted to different types of vehicles – to cater for different regional RF regulations.

Further, a common gateway and ground station design to ease deployments is also on the cards, as is using Loon’s self-organizing network technologies (which coordinate how messages are passed between balloons as they take different positions in the constellation, using different wind currents to control their location). Collectively, this could create a completely shared network that the two can use, but it is far from clear when the overlapping commercial interests would get the better of either party.

It might be the start of a beautiful friendship, but it does seem that HAPSMobile is getting the better deal – access to a proven system that can be scaled quite affordably, in order to provide it with potential global reach. For Loon, its ambitions seem to have waned, or at least its marketing has been dialed down a few notches. It might be unfair to say that Loon is settling, but there’s a definite air of it.

Junichi Miyakawa, Representative Director & CTO of SoftBank, also President & CEO of HAPSMobile Inc. said “building a telecommunications network in the stratosphere, which has not been utilized by humankind so far, is uncharted territory and a major challenge for SoftBank. Working with Loon, I’m confident we can accelerate the path toward the realization of utilizing the stratosphere for global networks by pooling our technologies, insights and experience. 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.”