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Digital Divide

Airbus' HAPS eyes success where Google and Facebook only found failure

Airbus is the world's biggest maker of airplanes. Earlier this month, the company said it plans to get into the "connectivity services business" by creating a subsidiary that will sell High Altitude Platform Station (HAPS) aircraft to network operators and others.

Airbus said its new business will be fronted by Samer Halawi, previously the chief commercial officer for satellite giant Intelsat. Taz Esmail will be the operation's CFO; Esmail previously was the CFO for Meta Aerospace.

Airbus' HAPS announcement essentially formalizes its efforts surrounding Zephyr, an unmanned aerial system (UAS) that was originally developed in the early 2000s by QinetiQ and then eventually purchased by what is today Airbus. Zephyr is basically a big drone that can fly for weeks at altitudes of up to 70,000 feet, thus staying above things like weather and airline traffic.

(Source: Unsplash)
(Source: Unsplash)

As noted by Via Satellite, Airbus argues that one Zephyr can cover the same geographic area as 250 cell towers. "Filling the gap between ground towers, conventional aircraft and satellites, Zephyr is positioned perfectly to complement and enhance existing infrastructure," the company said in a description of Zephyr.

Airbus was among a group of telecom companies – ranging from SoftBank to Ericsson to Deutsche Telekom – that formed the HAPS Alliance in 2020. The group said its goal is to promote "the use of high altitude vehicles in the Earth's stratosphere to eliminate the digital divide and bring connectivity to more people, places, and things worldwide."

In formalizing its Zephyr HAPS business, Airbus is entering a space fraught with failures. For example, Facebook (now Meta) first launched its Aquila project in 2014. Aquila was also basically a big drone that could fly for weeks in order to beam Internet connections to rural areas. Facebook shuttered that effort in 2018.

Similarly, Google (now Alphabet) first started working on its Loon high-altitude balloon effort in 2011, and spun it out into a separate company in 2018. Loon folded in 2021.

Japan's SoftBank then purchased some of Loon's patents for its own HAPS Mobile business. In 2019, SoftBank said HAPS Mobile would begin mass producing drones by 2023, but in 2021 it said that it hopes to begin offering "full-scale commercial services" via HAPS by 2027.

Others testing Internet connections from airborne transmitters include Altaeros and Sceye. Elefante Group had discussed such offerings, but its website now indicates only that it is "in stealth mode and looking to disrupt the way we communicate with, view and analyze the world."

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Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading | @mikeddano

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