Competition with Starlink: Stratosphere pilots should bring internet access


Mobile balloon or plane stations in the stratosphere have so far been an unrealized dream. It wasn’t until the beginning of the year that Internet giant Alphabet ended its Moonshot Loon project due to a lack of profit prospects, which wanted to bring the Internet to the poor masses in developing countries. with balloons in arrow. However, the global consortium for this “High Altitude Platform Station” (HAPS), to which Airbus and Deutsche Telekom also belong, do not give up: the first summit of the HAPS alliance took place on Monday to give more impetus to the idea that was coming down.

Airborne commercial services for the internet could take off in 2027, said Ryuji Wakikawa, vice president of Japanese mobile operator Softbank Corp. Global technology investor Softbank’s Japanese mobile network is sticking to the idea and just acquired Loon’s patents. Wakikawa was therefore optimistic: “The challenge is not technology, but national rules and market acceptance.

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For Wakikawa, the global telecommunications industry is facing a paradigm shift. The network’s strategy is shifting “from covering as much of the population as possible to the entire territory,” explained the Softbanks employee for in-house HAPS Mobile. And its raison d’être is the “Internet of Things”.

The new 5G networks will not only connect more people, but also machines, measuring stations and sensors, argued Wakikawa – and this also in remote areas that were previously not covered due to a lack of people. For this reason, various companies have been competing for years with ideas to allow Internet access without land base stations in all corners of the world.

The HAPS alliance is one of the comrades in arms. Suppliers want solar-powered balloons, airships or light planes with a large wingspan to rise 20 kilometers high into the stratosphere, where flying base stations can spin for months. However, the idea is in competition with satellite Internet, which enjoys significant support.

None other than Tesla founder Elon Musk and his space company SpaceX are already distributing satellites for his Starlink project in near-Earth orbits. Not before October Musk tweetedthat customers would not have to do without high-speed internet services on planes via its full network. Softbank is also banking on base stations in space with an investment in the start-up OneWeb.

But for Wakikawa, HAPS remains an alternative to expensive satellite Internet. Aspects are the lower start-up costs for stratosphere pilots, another is the lower delay in data transfer. With satellites, the so-called latency is 20 to 500 milliseconds, with a HAPS network only 0.3 milliseconds, he announces. He also argues that satellite and stratospheric Internet should not be seen as competition, but as two technologies that complement each other.

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But despite all the enthusiasm, the digital conference also showed that until now a viable business model for the HAPS network was missing. The costs are still too high to fulfill the social mission of giving access to the Internet to the poorest in the most remote regions of the world.

An important requirement of the online conference was therefore the complete automation of the floating base stations. “We need an autonomous fleet management system,” said Andy Thurling, chair of the HAPS Alliance Aviation Working Group. But he’s also confident. The task force spent 2020 defining its goal. “Now we are in the operating mode. “


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