SoftBank invests $7.5m in regional broadband 'SuperTower'

MIT's Altaeros is aiming to begin customer trials of its tethered aerostat providing low-cost broadband to regional areas at the start of 2018, with SoftBank contributing $7.5 million to the project.
Written by Corinne Reichert, Contributor

Japanese telecommunications carrier SoftBank has invested $7.5 million in MIT's Altaeros Energies, which is aiming to bring low-cost wireless broadband to regional areas via its "SuperTower".

Altaeros is hoping to commercialise the SuperTower, a tethered aerostat that floats 250 metres above the ground to provide a broadband footprint corresponding to around 30 traditional cell towers, by the beginning of next year.

Wireless carriers can use the SuperTower to augment their 4G LTE and future 5G networks in rural areas at what Altaeros claims is "up to 70 percent lower cost, in half the time, and with significantly lower energy use than conventional infrastructure".

"After developing the world's first fully autonomous aerostat, we are ready to deliver a product that affordably connects millions of rural users," Altaeros CEO and CTO Ben Glass said.

"Our strong partnership with SoftBank ... support[s] our mission of enabling affordable, state-of-the-art telecom services for rural communities across the world. The SuperTower will help carriers connect the phones, cars, and devices of the future, wherever they may be."

The SuperTower also uses the same antennas, radios, and permitting processes as traditional towers, and Altaeros will begin trialling the solution with carriers next year "in the US and abroad".

Also contributing to Altaeros' funding since it was founded in 2010 have been Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Suhail Bahwan Group, the US Department of Agriculture, the National Science Foundation, and RNT Associates, with Altaeros also working on an autonomous tethered airborne wind turbine and its underlying autonomous aerostat system.

Altaeros noted that its SuperTower will compete with Google's Project Loon and Facebook's Aquila.

Google began testing Project Loon, which launches transmitters under high-altitude balloons to provide large rural areas with low-cost broadband, in February last year in Sri Lanka after reaching a spectrum deal with the government. Its balloons float 20km high in the stratosphere.

Facebook's Aquila, meanwhile, involves a solar-powered drone with the wingspan of a Boeing 737, which is designed to fly for between 60 and 90 days per flight at an altitude of 60,000 to 90,000 feet.

The aircraft recently undertook its second test flight to trial its new moveable surfaces on the wing that boost drag and counter lift during landing, as well as its new sensors, autopilot software, communication subsystem radios, and a mechanism for rotating the propellers horizontally to aid its landing -- the last of which did not work as planned.

Other low-cost regional broadband solutions include AT&T and NetComm Wireless' outdoor wireless antennas enabling connectivity speeds of at least 10Mbps and Microsoft's use of the "white spaces" or unused channels between television broadcasts, both of which were announced last month.

All of these low-cost rural broadband solutions being launched out of US companies follow Google Fiber being forced to halt its rollout of fibre across Los Angeles, Dallas, Tampa, Jacksonville, Portland, Phoenix, San Diego, San Jose, and Oklahoma City at the end of last year due to financial difficulties.

In addition to its investment into Altaeros' SuperTower commercialisation, SoftBank last month also contributed to the $2.5 billion Series G funding round of Grab, an on-demand transportation and mobile payments company.

SoftBank, which recently announced that it would buy robotics company Boston Dynamics from Google parent Alphabet, is also working on 5G trials over sub-6GHz spectrum at 4.5GHz across Tokyo with Chinese telecommunications technology solutions provider ZTE, as announced in June.

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