New HAPS Alliance Promotes High-Altitude Internet

Bridging the digital divide with high-flying base stations

Last month, several of the world’s leading telecom, aviation and aerospace companies announced the formation of the HAPS Alliance. The group’s stated goal is to promote the use of high-altitude vehicles in the stratosphere to bring connectivity to more people, places and things worldwide.

HAPS is short for high-altitude platform station, which essentially means high-flying, self-sustained base stations providing cellular connectivity to areas below. At present, most wireless subscribers rely on a connection to a nearby terrestrial cell tower. Other subscribers, usually those in more remote areas, depend on satellite-based connectivity, which is disadvantaged by its distance from the ground, resulting in greater latency and more limited throughput. Satellite service is also almost always metred and quite expensive. It tends to be the worst-case-scenario option.

The concept of HAPS connectivity is somewhere between terrestrial-based and satellite-provided connectivity solutions.

The launch of the HAPS Alliance follows a partnership struck in April 2019 between the SoftBank-led HAPSMobile initiative and Loon, an Alphabet subsidiary that uses high-altitude balloons to provide LTE access to remote areas. Under that agreement, SoftBank invested $125 million into Loon.

Members of the new HAPS Alliance include Bharti Airtel, China Telecom, Deutsche Telekom, Telefonica, AeroVironment, Airbus Defence and Space, Ericsson, HAPSMobile, Intelsat, Loon, Nokia and SoftBank.

There are certainly advantages to a network architecture consisting of high-altitude connectivity platforms that operate in the stratosphere. This can enable coverage that avoids ground clutter and significant problems with latency. The devices fly just 20 km above the Earth’s surface where the weather is mild all year round. These advantages make such vehicles a promising solution for expanding mobile coverage to locations where connectivity is lacking, such as mountainous terrain, remote islands, marine regions and developing countries. In addition to personal communications, the system could support the growing demand to connect various devices and sensors in sectors such as manufacturing and farming.

To deliver air-based connectivity, HAPSMobile has developed a solar-powered drone, called Hawk30, pictured below. The drone has a wingspan of 78 metres, features 10 propellers and can travel at speeds of up to 110 km per hour. It can currently only stay airborne at latitudes of plus or minus 30 degrees from the equator, limiting its ability to operate in northerly countries like the US and Japan, although a planned future device will extend that to 50 degrees.

Loon’s approach to providing connectivity relies on balloons floating at an altitude of 18 km to 25 km to create an aerial wireless network. The company has landed deals in Puerto Rico, Kenya and Peru, a signal that high-altitude Internet is off to a good start.

Deploying high-altitude solutions to cost-effectively boost mobile coverage is among the more interesting trends in the telecom industry right now. News of the HAPS Alliance came as Vodafone and Rakuten announced a new joint venture called SpaceMobile, which will build a constellation of mobile broadband satellites. In a statement, Vodafone said that the network will be the first in the world to connect directly to standard smartphones.

The HAPS Alliance will push for governments to adopt high-altitude Internet as well as work on a cooperative environment with common specifications and standards. The aim is to create a single “compelling message” to sell the concept, even if the individual companies end up rivalling each other. The members of the alliance will work together to promote and build industry-wide standards and interoperability guidelines, liaising with regulatory authorities in relevant countries.

The concept of using aircraft as a flying base station has been around for decades, but it was only recently that the efficiency of solar panels and battery capacity have advanced enough to make this a practical solution. However, it’s still early days, and the alliance will need to show a road map for its technology and that this isn’t a short-lived effort. This will complement, rather than disrupt, connectivity networks.