HAPSMobile invests $125m in Loon; companies to work together on high-altitude systems, including possible wholesale business and sharing network connectivity

HAPSMobile, part-owned by Japan’s SoftBank, has announced a US$125 million investment in Loon, a subsidiary of Google parent Alphabet, a deal that marks the start of a wider cooperation between the pair in the area of high-altitude mobile base stations.

Under the terms of the deal, Loon has the right to invest the same amount in HAPSMobile in the future.

The companies said they are "exploring commercial collaborations to accelerate the deployment of high altitude network connectivity solutions," with a view to extending mobile Internet penetration, enabling IoT applications and furthering the deployment of 5G.

Google unveiled what it then called Project Loon almost six years ago, talking up the potential of boosting connectivity in hard-to-reach areas using a fleet of balloons. Loon became an independent company under the Alphabet umbrella last summer.

Similarly, HAPSMobile, a joint venture between SoftBank and unmanned aircraft systems company AeroVironment, is developing a High Altitude Platform Station (HAPS) system that essentially uses drones to provide telecommunications connectivity.

"We see joining forces as an opportunity to develop an entire industry, one which holds the promise to bring connectivity to parts of the world no one thought possible," said Loon CEO Alastair Westgarth, in a statement.

"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," added the Japanese telco’s CTO, and HAPSMobile CEO, Junichi Miyakawa, noting that even as 5G approaches for many, around half of the world’s population is still without Internet access.

"Working with Alphabet’s subsidiary 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," he said.

Specifically, the companies said they are looking at collaborating in a number of areas, including the creation of a wholesale business that would enable them to use each other’s vehicles; setting up a common gateway or ground station; the formation of an alliance to promote the use of high-altitude communications with regulators and other authorities; and enabling both parties’ flight vehicles to share network connectivity in the air.