Softbank in AI data centre deal with Sharp

Softbank has become the latest Japanese mobile operator to make plans for an AI data centre on the site of the former Sharp LCD panel plant in Osaka.

Mary Lennighan

June 10, 2024

3 Min Read

The operator said it has inked an MoU with Sharp to build a "large-scale" data centre at the Sharp Sakai Plant, which is now winding down its LCD panels business after around 15 years of operation. Softbank aims to start building the new data centre around autumn this year with full-scale operations earmarked for 2025.

The facility will boast a total floor area of 750,000 metres and power capacity of over 150 megawatts – rising to 400 megawatts in future – on a site of around 440,000 square metres. The site will account for about 60% of the Sharp Sakai Plant's total land area, Softbank said, presumably referring to that 750K figure; the Sharp plant claimed 1.27 million square metres of space (see image below).


And that's where this story starts to get a little bit confusing.

Just last week one of Softbank's domestic rivals KDDI announced it is working on what will become the largest AI data centre in Asia on that very same site. Given that Softbank made no mention of KDDI, nor of the other companies involved in that project – the telco is working with Supermicro and Datasection, as well as Sharp, and has committed to using Nvidia server racks – it seems likely that this is not simply a case of it joining with the others.

Indeed, Softbank said it has been in talks with Sharp since January, and that it aims to get the data centre up and running quickly by using the existing buildings, electricity supply, cooling systems and other resources already in situ. Meanwhile, KDDI and its partners are just getting to the stage of starting talks, but have said that Supermicro will provide a cooling platform.

Further, the Japan Times also seems to be under the impression that these are two different projects.

All of which begs the question of how KDDI is measuring the size of its "largest in Asia" data centre. Clearly not in terms of how much of the Sharp site it will occupy.

Doubtless, all of this will become apparent before too much longer. Softbank is clearly is in a hurry to get its data centre project off the ground, and KDDI and partners are also shooting for "as early as possible."

Softbank said it plans to use the new data centre for its own generative AI development and other AI-related business. It will also open up the facility to universities, research institutions, businesses and other third parties for their AI-related needs.

And under the terms of their MoU, Softbank and Sharp will "consider collaborating in AI-related businesses going forward," the telco said.

Finally, there was the obligatory nod to green issues from Softbank. The operator said it will consider using clean energy sources to minimise the environmental impact of the data centre. That's not even close to a pledge to actually do so, but at least it is making the right noises.

While we haven't as yet got much detail on these AI data centre plans, it's obvious we have the start of a trend here. Operators are only going to need more data centre space as AI evolves, and building their own through projects like these is one way to achieve it.

About the Author(s)

Mary Lennighan

Mary has been following developments in the telecoms industry for more than 20 years. She is currently a freelance journalist, having stepped down as editor of Total Telecom in late 2017; her career history also includes three years at CIT Publications (now part of Telegeography) and a stint at Reuters. Mary's key area of focus is on the business of telecoms, looking at operator strategy and financial performance, as well as regulatory developments, spectrum allocation and the like. She holds a Bachelor's degree in modern languages and an MA in Italian language and literature.

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