More than 4 billion people around the world lack Internet access, and some tech giants and small startups are betting the solution will come from floating or flying broadband-beaming equipment in the sky. It’s still unclear whether that strategy will, uh, take off. But the investment in this emerging sector is certainly growing.
The latest example is last week’s announcement that SoftBank Group has funneled $7.5 million into Altaeros Energies, a Somerville, MA-based startup that wants to help deliver broadband access to rural areas worldwide through tethered blimps, known as “aerostats,” that it will equip with wireless communications technologies. (One is pictured above.) In total, Altaeros has raised more than $20 million in outside capital, mostly in the form of equity funding, the company says. Its other backers include Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Suhail Bahwan Group, and RNT Associates.
Other companies have similar plans to expand Internet access with the help of airborne equipment. Google’s Project Loon aims to provide Internet connectivity through a network of solar-powered balloons floating in Earth’s stratosphere. Facebook wants to use solar-powered, Internet-beaming drones the size of a Boeing 737. Allsopp Helikites, a U.K. firm, has developed a broadband-delivering aerostat that is a mix of a helium balloon and a kite.
Some of these projects seem to be making progress, but there’s a long way to go before such technologies get widely deployed. Altaeros says it intends to start putting its airborne cellular “SuperTowers” in the sky in 2018. Ben Glass, the company’s chief executive and chief technology officer, declined to say where the initial batch of tethered blimps might get deployed; the company is in talks with early customers, he says.
Meanwhile, Facebook completed the second test flight of its “Aquila” drone in June. The unmanned aircraft landed successfully, according to media reports. Its first trial reportedly ended in a crash landing.
Project Loon is further along. Its balloons helped deliver Internet access to tens of thousands of residents of Peru after the country was hit by flooding earlier this year, the BBC reported. That was the first big test for Project Loon, which had only run small-scale trials until that point, according to the BBC report.
Steve Papa, CEO and co-founder of Parallel Wireless, sees promise in airborne approaches to delivering Internet access to remote locations. Earlier this summer, his New Hampshire-based startup’s wireless networking equipment was attached to an Allsopp-made aerostat and used to send an Internet signal in a demonstration led by U.K. mobile network operator EE.
“There are a lot of technical issues being worked through before this can be implemented very smoothly at scale,” Papa says, referring to various companies’ efforts to deliver Internet access using balloons, drones, and other aircraft. But “over the next few years we should be able to work through those things and be able to put” these technologies into wider production, he adds.
Papa says it’s encouraging to see a company like SoftBank—a Japan-based telecommunications and technology conglomerate—investing in technologies that could help “this underserved segment of the global population—investment that is critical for enabling disconnected citizens to join the global economy.”
Part of the reason so many people lack Internet access, Altaeros’s Glass says, is it’s expensive to build cell towers in rural and remote locations. These areas have sparse populations spread over large distances, so the investment can be hard for telecom companies to justify. Altaeros’s goal is to “make it economically attractive for the carriers to provide services to those rural communities” by reducing the cost of building and operating cellular networks in those areas.
Altaeros’s tethered blimps will hover about 800 feet off the ground, which means they can send a wireless signal further than cell towers, which usually are about 100 feet tall, Glass says. Altaeros’s SuperTowers are capable of providing the same level of cellular coverage as a network of 30 cell towers, he claims. “When you consolidate those 30 towers into a single site, it’s just a huge amount of cost savings,” he says.
One of the company’s main selling points is it has automated much of its blimp’s operations, Glass says. The craft can launch and land itself, and Altaeros remotely monitors it via a system of sensors that track things like the position of the blimp and atmospheric conditions, he says.
The automation reduces costs because workers only need to be on site for installation and periodic maintenance, Glass says. With other existing aerostats, “the majority of the cost is not in the system itself, it’s in keeping this highly skilled, highly trained crew on site, on call, all the time,” he says.
Altaeros, which was founded in 2010 at MIT, has filed around 10 patent applications, and four have been approved, Glass says. They cover things like the control system for the aerostat.
Altaeros envisions a variety of uses for its tethered blimps. It initially was trying to commercialize an airborne wind turbine for generating renewable energy, an idea that attracted a $7 million investment from SoftBank in late 2014.
Altaeros, which is based in the Somerville cleantech incubator Greentown Labs, has tested its wind turbine aerostats on a small scale. But so far it hasn’t implemented them in any “long-term commercial deployments,” Glass says.
“Shortly after Softbank’s initial investment, the price of oil fell through the floor,” Glass says. “That, unfortunately, at least in the near term, took away a lot of our initial competitive advantage.”
Glass says he hopes Altaeros will eventually return to the wind turbine product. He says the company’s aerostats could also be used for observing soil and other environmental conditions for the agriculture industry; monitoring and helping to coordinate responses to forest fires or other natural disasters; and providing a network for “remote, autonomous industrial applications,” such as autonomous mining sites.
But, for now, the company’s 25-plus employees are focused on the telecom applications. The plan is to rent the use of the blimps to carriers on a subscription basis, which Glass equates to the software-as-a-service business model—call it “SaaS in the sky,” he says.
“Over the last 10 years, the carriers have moved away from owning their own towers,” Glass says. “That’s created an industry of tower companies that own and lease the towers. Our plan is to, in most markets or geographies, provide the SuperTower as a service to basically fit in with how carriers are used to doing business.”