Masayoshi Son is making a bid for the lead in a high-altitude race featuring fellow billionaires Elon Musk, Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos.
Son’s SoftBank (SFTBF) said Thursday that one of its subsidiaries, HAPSMobile, has formed a strategic partnership with Loon and invested $125 million in the company.
Loon, which is owned by Google (GOOGL) parent company Alphabet, aims to use a network of high-flying balloons to provide internet access in remote areas around the world.
It’s an idea that has attracted many of the biggest names in tech.
Elon Musk’s SpaceX wants to use thousands of small satellites to deliver broadband around the world. Jeff Bezos’ Amazon (AMZN) said last week that it’s also exploring the use of satellites to provide internet.
OneWeb, a startup that has been backed by Richard Branson’s Virgin Group as well as SoftBank, has started building its own network with six satellites launched from French Guiana in February.
SoftBank and Loon said Thursday that their mission is to bring the internet to “more people, places, and things worldwide” by building a telecommunications network in the stratosphere.
They plan to do so with balloons and unmanned aircraft systems that will beam down network coverage from miles above the earth.
“Even in this current era of coming 5G services, we cannot ignore the reality that roughly half of the world’s population is without Internet access,” said Junichi Miyakawa, the CEO of HAPSMobile.
The number of people and devices connected to the internet is set to rise dramatically over the next few decades. But to achieve that, providers need to build reliable networks and reach people in more remote areas.
HAPSMobile has been working on a solar-powered drone that can cruise in the sky for several months, delivering 5G connections.
The SoftBank subsidiary said separately on Thursday that it had licensed technology related to the project from Facebook (FB), which had sought to provide internet access via drones but dropped the initiative last year.
Claude Rousseau, research director at Northern Sky Research, said the SoftBank-Loon project looks promising.
“The fact that they are investing in a balloon-based project shows that they understand what our market forecasts shows — that the balloon market will be the biggest high-altitude platform market,” he said.
Rousseau said that SoftBank sees its investments in OneWeb and HAPSMobile as complimentary. The balloons being developed by HAPSMobile would be deployed much closer to earth than the OneWeb satellites.
According to the European Space Agency, internet delivered from high altitudes could be useful in search and rescue missions, disaster relief and for environmental monitoring.
Loon, for example, deployed balloons to bring internet and text messaging services to Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria damaged the island’s communication infrastructure.