About a fortnight ago, we jumped on discussing how a certain internet-related rural Africa-focused project that is now defunct was yet making it possible for another connectivity initiative to progress.
Project Loon, as it is called, was popped out of space by its owners early this year in what was “a necessary business call”. But, even in deflation, the balloon-based tech daring continues to catalyze related developments.
At first, it was that the wireless optical communications link tech used in pivoting Loon had turned into a lifeline for another internet project: Project Taara.
Though Loon was piloted in Kenya in conjunction with Telkom Kenya, one of the most critical technologies about the project forms the basis upon which its owners are making progress in the Congos.
Project Taara, on the other hand, is trying to literally beam internet connection from one point to another, starting from the two ends of the Congo River to connect Brazzaville and Kinshasa—respectively the capital cities of the Republic of Congo and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).
And, according to the project’s Director of Engineering, Baris Erkmen, Taara is pretty much already a breakthrough pending optimization and full-scale deployment.
But beyond Taara, the quest to bring affordable and sustainable internet connectivity in Africa feeds fuel off the long-lost moonshot project known as Loon. According to a more recent development, Project Loon’s more than 200 patents are now on auction.
Basically, this exercise is mostly to liquidate whatever is left of the original masterstroke (mostly the tech) of an idea that came from the stables of X—the factory where Alphabet, Google’s parent company, generously embarks on some of the most audacious problem-solving projects.
Selling the patents to a heavily-funded project like Loon from a company like Alphabet is somewhat big business. And that is why the buyers with deep pockets are the ones going after the rights and looking to use some of the endeavour’s discoveries in advancing their respective projects.
It is along these lines that SoftBank, the Japanese multinational conglomerate with a seemingly bottomless purse, made entry by acquiring about 200 Loon patents.
Well, SoftBank is best known for sinking hundreds of millions (USD) into startups from across the world, with a seemingly ever-evolving war chest installed specifically for technology-focused ventures. Its USD 30 Bn Vision Fund 2—the company’s latest running VC Fund—has propelled the two African startups it has backed into unicorn territory, all in a space of two months.
Late August, three-year-old Chinese-but-Africa-focused fintech OPay reached USD 2 Bn in valuation after taking USD 400 Mn in Series C from a SoftBank-led VC consortium. Late September, Nigerian-but-now-global talent-tech startup Andela barged into the unicorn club armed with a Series E of USD 200 Mn from a SoftBank-led round.
Meanwhile, the seemingly sought-after soft touch from SoftBank—one which has been lambasted for potentially upsetting the much-respected balance of the Silicon Valley ecosystem—has rocket-launched American and Indian startups into USD 1B+ statuses.
So, since SoftBank is obviously more recognized when it comes to investing heavily albeit strategically in innovation-driven companies striving to change how the world works, why is the company putting money into Loon patents? How does the highest-earning Japanese company today decide to buy the franchise to what is relatively a failed attempt to provide affordable yet sustainable internet connectivity in Africa?
SoftBank’s involvement with Project Loon goes all the way back to April 2019 when the Tokyo-based company’s subsidiary pumped in USD 125 Mn in external financing into Loon—the funding round was meant to help Alphabet’s X cut costs and pump up the engines of its non-ad biz.
However, Alphabet didn’t raise money for Loon from SoftBank because it was short on cash. Though there was USD 100 Bn stacked somewhere for moonshots like Loon, Google’s parent company sourced money for this Other Bet in order to strike a should-be-necessary balance between its profits, marketplace, and the advertising industry.
At the time, what made the investment interesting was the fact that SoftBank basically provided funding for a project that is not unlike theirs. Like Alphabet, SoftBank is also looking to enhance internet connectivity, probably across the world. Similarly, like Alphabet’s Loon, SoftBank’s HAPSMobile exists to connect people residing in the planet’s far-flung regions.
Far-flung regions? That is not uncharacteristic of Africa, home to the world’s largest unconnected population and the highest concentration of youngsters. Indeed, in July 2020, SoftBank went into a partnership with Smart Africa to bridge the digital divide in the continent by providing accessible and affordable internet connectivity.
On this basis, SoftBank will be deploying its newly-unveiled non-terrestrial network (NTN). HAPSMobile, in conjunction with Skylo and OneWeb, will employ NTN to aid the stratospheric deployment of internet connectivity to no less than 32 Smart Africa member countries. Besides Smart Africa, HAPSMobile has another joint project with Loon called HAPS Alliance—a body of countries in support of high altitude platform stations.
Now that SoftBank has acquired patents from a project which it once invested in, there is no other way to completely salvage the initiative than incorporating many of Loon’s working parts into the design of HAPSMobile—which, after all, existed about 2 years before Loon was conceived at the X Factory.
Collectively, SoftBank and its HAPSMobile moonshot will own around 500 HAPS-related patents from Project Loon. With these copyrights, both divisions will expand the portfolio of the patents in favor of deploying HAPS services on a commercial scale and foster interoperability and regularization in the HAPS sector.
Being that SoftBank is no newbie to airborne internet connectivity, it might make sense to expect that the remains of Loon will form major frameworks for successful pilots and deployments on the HAPSMobile side of things. After all, the Japanese company is one of the very few tech multinationals investing heavily in wirelessly and viably connecting 1.3 billion Africans.
Conclusively, this string of developments points that despite Loon banging out from African skies, the leftovers of the multi-million-dollar balloon-based project further the causes of not only Project Taara in the Congos but also the Sub-Saharan Africa-facing internet strides of one of the world’s most financially buoyant investors.
Image Courtesy: Amazon Media