World Mobile and SoftBank signal new phase for airborne base stations

World Mobile and SoftBank signal new phase for airborne base stations

Is the high-altitude platform station (HAPS) concept still viable despite the failure of Loon? Possibly. World Mobile, a blockchain-based mobile connectivity company targeting unconnected regions, has announced plans for the launching of a hybrid mobile network in Zanzibar that uses balloons. It's not exactly HAPS, however; the airborne component will involve low-altitude platform balloons.

World Mobile says its balloons will be the first to officially launch in Africa for commercial use. The remotely controlled aerostat balloons are powered by solar panels, inflated by helium and tethered to the ground. Once airborne, they act as floating cellular base stations transmitting radio signals to ground stations and personal devices. 

World Mobile says that the project – the first since a successful $40 million raise – will deliver coverage and access to the digital economy for over one million people in Zanzibar by the end of 2023. 

It is described as the first step in World Mobile’s mission to help bring nearly four billion people online before 2030. This includes the rollout of over 100 mesh sites – local Wi-Fi nodes – during the first six months of 2022.

This is not the first attempt to bring the internet to remote areas via balloons. However, as we reported earlier this year, the Alphabet-supported balloon-based internet network Loon (pictured above) called a halt to plans to cover unconnected regions after failing to find a financially stable business model.

However, World Mobile seems to believe the airborne base station concept is far from dead. And it’s not alone. Japan’s SoftBank Corp recently announced plans to issue a HAPS Bond to be used exclusively for SoftBank's HAPS business that aims to provide wide-area and stable telecommunications connectivity from the stratosphere.

SoftBank's proposed HAPS are not balloons. They are unmanned aircraft systems flown in the stratosphere that act as airborne base stations. Nevertheless, SoftBank announced in September that it had acquired approximately 200 patents, including patents pending, for HAPS from Alphabet’s Loon following the winddown of Loon earlier this year.

So are airborne base stations really back? And can they really connect the unconnected? In 2022 we may well find out.

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