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SoftBank Plows Big Bucks Into Drones & Balloons for 5G, IoT

Mike Dano
4/25/2019
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SoftBank took the veil off its HAPSMobile business, which the company said will use autonomous drones to beam Internet services into unconnected areas all over the world. The company said it will begin testing the service in Hawaii and elsewhere, with the goal of mass producing the drones for commercial service by 2023.

SoftBank is also investing $125 million in Loon, the Alphabet subsidiary that rose from Google's X moonshot division with a plan to use balloons to provide LTE-based Internet services. "The companies are actively exploring commercial collaborations to accelerate the deployment of high altitude network connectivity solutions, with a focus on expanding mobile internet penetration, enabling internet of things (IoT) applications, and assisting in the deployment of 5G," SoftBank wrote of the partnership.

HAPSMobile is a 2017 joint venture between SoftBank and California's Aerovironment, a drone company partially focused on military applications.

SoftBank said HAPSMobile will build the massive "HAWK30" drone -- 255-feet long with ten propellers -- that will be solar powered and able to stay aloft for months.

Thus, a partnership between SoftBank and Alphabet's Loon spinoff makes sense considering Loon has been working on a similar approach to providing Internet connectivity, except with high-altitude balloons instead of drones.

The companies said the partnership will allow them to leverage each other's assets, including sharing hardware designs, using the same connectivity equipment, sharing ground relay stations and using Loon's temporospatial SDN for the HAPSMobile drones.

SoftBank is the parent company of US mobile network operator Sprint, which is in the process of merging with T-Mobile. Under Chief Executive Masayoshi Son's directions, SoftBank also owns substantial investments in Arm, Brightstart, Boston Dynamics and WeWork. It also runs the Vision Fund, the world's largest technology fund.

SoftBank's full-throated entry into the market for drone-powered Internet services comes almost exactly a year after Facebook largely discontinued its own drone-powered Internet effort. Facebook launched its Aquila drone program in 2014 and shuttered it in 2018.

But drones and balloons aren't the only gadgets that could provide broad-based Internet services in the future. Companies ranging from OneWeb to SpaceX's Startlink to Amazon have announced plans to deploy hundreds or even thousands of tiny, low-orbit satellites capable of beaming high-speed Internet connections to remote or unconnected parts of the world. Others, like UbiquitiLink, promise to simply connect existing smartphones phones directly to satellites.

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

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