Alphabet’s Loon partners with Softbank’s HAPSMobile for stratospheric connectivity

Softbank’s HAPSMobile this week announced it's investing $125 million in Alphabet, Inc.’s Loon business, as the two companies form a long-term strategy partnership to advance high-altitude connectivity. Both companies are exploring ways to deliver internet services to remote areas using high altitude vehicles.


HAPSMobile, which includes the acronym for high-altitude platform station (HAPS), began in 2017 as a joint venture between Softbank and Aerovironment, a U.S.-based aerospace company. The venture has developed a solar-powered drone, called Hawk 30, which travels up to 20 km above Earth’s surface for stratospheric telecommunications delivery. According to an agreement with NASA, the Hawk 30 has just begun initial flight tests this year in California.


“Building a telecommunications network in the stratosphere, which has not been utilized by humankind so far, is uncharted territory,” said Junichi Miyakawa, representative director and CTO of SoftBank, in a statement. He also serves as president and CEO of HAPSMobile. “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,” he added.


Alphabet’s Loon division, which builds high altitude balloons for delivering internet connectivity, has been in development since 2013, and was spun out of Alphabet’s X division in 2018. In 2017, Loon launched an internet service for some 100,000 residents in Puerto Rico, and last year it installed ground infrastructure in Kenya to support a service launch planned for later this year.


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Loon CEO Alastair Westgarth said the partnership will provide “an opportunity to develop an entire industry.”


The two companies are now exploring commercial collaborations to accelerate the deployment of high-altitude network connectivity solutions, Softbank said. The companies are focused initially on expanding mobile internet to remote areas, enabling internet of things (IoT) applications, and expanding 5G deployments.


Softbank says its HAPSMobile platform will be able to efficiently interconnect with current telecommunication networks, offering wide-area connectivity that spans both the sky and the ground.


The partnership enables HAPSMobile to use Loon’s balloons now, while it finishes development of its own Hawk 30 vehicles. Under the agreement, Loon will be able to use the Hawk vehicles once they are completed. The two companies will also jointly developed communications payloads that can be used on both flight vehicles and will support connectivity using a variety of frequency bands. The companies will also develop common ground stations, which would be deployed globally, to support both Loon and HAPSMobile connectivity.


HAPSMobile’s vehicles are not too dissimilar from Facebook’s Aquila project, a fleet of solar-powered aircraft Facebook was developing to deliver connectivity to people in remote areas. Facebook launched the project in 2014, but shuttered it in 2018 as more space companies began entering the sector.