HAPSMobile aims high to solve connectivity challenges


President and CEO, HAPSMobile

High Altitude Platform Station (HAPS) technology specialist HAPSMobile explains how MNOs can make use of high altitude vehicles to connect the unconnected and support use cases for the Internet of Things.

The current global pandemic has fundamentally changed how millions of us live and work today. Although many of the measures to slow the spread of coronavirus are temporary, the effects are likely to last much longer. Indeed, some of the changes in our working environment to support flexible working and home offices could turn out to be permanent.

The health crisis has certainly illustrated how important it is to be connected. Yet according to The State of Mobile Internet Connectivity 2020 from the GSMA and GSMA Intelligence, 51% of the global population is still not using mobile Internet, either because of a lack of mobile broadband coverage or key barriers such as a lack of awareness, affordability, or a lack of literacy and digital skills. Just under 600 million people live in areas with no broadband coverage at all.

HAPSMobile aims to play a major role in bridging the mobile divide, providing mobile Internet access to regions that are still not connected while also offering an alternative method of connectivity where full landmass coverage is hard to achieve but essential to support the Internet of Things (IoT).

Working hand in hand with MNOs

Importantly, the company intends to achieve this through a close collaboration with mobile network operators (MNOs) around the world.

Majority-owned by SoftBank Corp., with AeroVironment owning a minority share, HAPSMobile plans and operates a High Altitude Platform Station (HAPS) business that seeks to establish new infrastructure to connect people and things around the world. HAPSMobile has developed an unmanned solar-powered HAPS aircraft called Sunglider that is designed to provide a “network in the sky”.

According to Junichi Miyakawa, President and CEO of HAPSMobile, Sunglider can provide a service area of 200km in diameter. “That means that the mobile network area coverage of a single Sunglider aircraft is equal to that of approximately 400 base stations on the ground,” Miyakawa said.

Since HAPS is based in the stratosphere, which is much closer to the earth compared to the altitude where satellites orbit, it can deliver LTE and 5G connectivity directly to terminals just like a terrestrial base station, Miyakawa explained.

“Special devices and equipment to receive HAPS signals are unnecessary – the existing ecosystem of mobile handsets and equipment can be used as is. This makes it easy for telcos to deliver Internet connectivity to regions with fixed infrastructure and capex barriers,” he said. “End-users can use their existing handsets, which is another reason why HAPS is easy to implement. Connecting the unconnected around the world isn’t just a dream – with HAPS we’re making it a reality.”

HAPSMobile conducted the first test flight of Sunglider in 2019, and passed a number of test flight criteria at a NASA facility over the course of multiple flights. In a fifth test flight in September 2020, Sunglider reached the stratosphere with a peak altitude of 62,500 ft and successfully delivered LTE-based communications from the stratosphere during the flight.

“We’re proud of our track record, and our goal is to launch commercial services in 2023. To prepare for that, we are conducting flight vehicle verifications and studying and coordinating spectrum usage and other items at candidate countries for HAPS,” Miyakawa said.

Meeting the need for an innovative approach

HAPSMobile is targeting two main use cases: In regions without Internet access, HAPS could be used as the main form of telecommunications infrastructure. Indeed, most regions with no mobile broadband coverage are now found in rural, remote and sparsely populated areas of low-income countries where the business case for providing connectivity is proving difficult.

The GSMA report found that it can cost up to twice as much to deploy base stations in rural and remote areas compared to urban areas, and rural sites can also be more than three times as expensive to run. The report advises mobile operators to “explore the use of innovative technologies that reduce the cost of deploying and operating networks in remote areas”, and also called for regulation that enables the “rationalisation of resources”, such as spectrum technology neutrality.

In areas where telecommunications infrastructure is already in place, Miyakawa said HAPS can help ensure full geographic coverage.

“To give one example, Japan’s mobile networks boast over 99% population coverage. But land area coverage is only 70%. While some may say that few people need network coverage in the uncovered 30% land mass, there may be things and businesses that need to be connected in these unconnected regions. In this current era of IoT and digital transformation, not only people, but things need to be connected,” said Miyakawa.

Miyakawa provides the example of self-driving cars that need to travel through mountainous areas and drones making deliveries at high altitudes. “To support future industries, we believe covering entire landmasses with network connectivity will be meaningful, and that HAPS is uniquely positioned to provide optimal solutions,” he added. “In the not-too-distant future, it’s highly likely that mobile networks will be necessary at high altitudes to establish an IoT ecosystem comprised of drones. High-altitude coverage represents a huge business opportunity for MNOs.”

In addition to land coverage, HAPS can be utilised for a number of other applications, such as providing backup infrastructure when natural disasters or network outages occur; filling coverage gaps between cities and suburbs; and offloading traffic in dense, urban areas.

“In other words, HAPS can optimise telecommunications in a way that is tailored to the unique characteristics of each region. This is extremely important to MNOs, and I say that from the standpoint of also being a CTO at a major MNO,” said Miyakawa, in reference to his role at SoftBank Corp.

New frontiers

HAPSMobile is of course not working alone in its effort to promote the value of HAPS. It has already formed a strategic relationship with Loon, a subsidiary of Google parent company Alphabet, to advance the use of high altitude vehicles.

HAPSMobile and Loon have subsequently founded the HAPS Alliance, an industry association that aims to foster the use of high altitude vehicles in the Earth’s stratosphere to eliminate the digital divide and bring connectivity to more people, places, and things worldwide. Other members include Airbus Defence and Space, AT&T, Intelsat, Nokia, AeroVironment, Bharti Airtel, Deutsche Telekom, Ericsson, Telefónica and SoftBank Corp.

“Until now humankind has not utilised the stratosphere and it is a new frontier for telecommunication networks. This represents a huge challenge for all of us, and there are many areas that we need to address collectively, including regulatory frameworks and building an industry ecosystem,” Miyakawa explained.

Examples of how the HAPS Alliance is working together include the Aviation Working Group, where member companies are anticipating cross-border flights of HAPS vehicles “and discussing the issue so we can make proposals to regulatory bodies with a unified voice. This helps accelerate the process to lay the groundwork for a HAPS ecosystem,” Miyakawa said.

The Telecom Working Group is focusing on how to best utilise spectrum for HAPS business purposes around the world, while the Marketing Working Group aims to help increase awareness of the HAPS industry overall.

“I think many MNOs face the issue of how to actually implement HAPS and may not understand what HAPS solutions are available. It is true that HAPS use cases are still relatively few and much needs to be resolved in various countries with respect to regulatory systems and spectrum,” Miyakawa said.

Joining together to spread the HAPS message

In Miyakawa’s view, the HAPS Alliance can provide guidance to MNOs that wish to make use of such innovative infrastructure to improve their overall connectivity.

“If they’re wondering what kind of HAPS solution is appropriate, they can compare the solutions of Alliance members such as Loon and HAPSMobile, which have developed balloons and aircraft, respectively,” Miyakawa said.

The HAPS Alliance also intends to make joint proposals to the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and World Radiocommunication Conference (WRC) — “joining hands to take on hurdles together so MNOs can implement HAPS businesses”, according to Miyakawa.

The ITU also points out that HAPS contribute to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal 9 (industry, innovation and infrastructure) “by allowing for greater broadband connectivity and telecommunication services, particularly in communities, rural and remote areas that are underserved”.

Miyakawa also noted that even those MNOs that are not seriously thinking of implementing HAPS are still interested in HAPS industry trends.

“By joining the HAPS Alliance, they can obtain the latest information on the industry and stay informed of international HAPS trends. They’ll have access to companies that are highly interested in the HAPS business and members with new technologies, as well as the opportunity to form new connections by networking,” he said.

Miyakawa said the HAPS Alliance is open to all. “For the first year, membership fees are waived, so we strongly encourage those considering doing so to join,” he added.

Miyakawa is fully aware that the deployment of mobile networks at high altitudes “may sound like a big dream” to some. As it works towards its mission to create a society where people and things are connected around the world, HAPSMobile has already adopted a motto that sums up its ambitions: “today’s challenge will become tomorrow’s normal”.

“We’re confident that HAPS will play a major role in bridging the digital divide so people around the world will have equal access to the Internet,” Miyakawa said.