Friday, April 19, 2024

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Goodbye Project “Loon”

Alphabet is shuttering its experimental internet-beaming balloon business Loon.

Remember the Loon Project to Kenya? It was one of Google’s parent company, Alphabet, long-term experimental projects. The company is saying goodbye to this project that was supposed to beam internet to rural areas of the world.

“While we’ve found a number of willing partners along the way, we haven’t found a way to get the costs low enough to build a long-term, sustainable business,” said Loon CEO Alastair Westgarth said in a blog post Thursday. “Developing radical new technology is inherently risky, but that doesn’t make breaking this news any easier. Today, I’m sad to share that Loon will be winding down.”

The decision to wind down Loon is surprising because until recently it looked like the effort was paying off. In 2019, Loon raised $125 million in a funding round led by SoftBank Group Corp. And last summer, Loon announced it was partnering with the government of Kenya to launch balloons that would provide commercial connectivity services. Alphabet, the parent company of Google, launched Loon in June 2013, and Loon “graduated” from a moonshot to an independent company within Alphabet in 2018. Loon launched its first commercial internet service in Kenya in July, comprised of a fleet of about 35 balloons that covered an area of around 50,000 square kilometers. Loon has also provided internet services to areas affected by natural disasters, deploying balloons to Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria in 2017 and to Peru following an earthquake in 2019.

It may be that Alphabet’s ambitions were thwarted by the competition from satellite constellation connectivity projects led by companies such as Amazon.com Inc. and SpaceX Corp. But if not, those companies could well be looking into the feasibility of those projects sometime in the future.

Still, Westgarth insisted that the effort had had some successes.

“The Loon team is proud to have catalyzed an ecosystem of organizations working on providing connectivity from the stratosphere,” he wrote. “The world needs a layered approach to connectivity — terrestrial, stratospheric, and space-based — because each layer is suited to different parts of the problem. In this area, Loon has made a number of important technical contributions.”

In a second blog post, Astro Teller, CEO of X and chairman of Loon’s board, said his firm was pledging a $10 million fund to support nonprofits and other businesses focused on connectivity, education, entrepreneurship and internet in Kenya. Alphabet will also take some of Loon’s technology and share this and other lessons it has learned with others.

Constellation Research Inc. analyst Holger Mueller said he was sad to see that Alphabet was pulling the plug on Loon.

“We in first world often forget that most of the rest of the world does not have fast internet coverage, and even if it does, many cannot afford it,” Mueller said. “Given the time and cost it takes to build ground-based infrastructure, airborne solutions seemed like a promising solution, so it’s sad to see that Google’s balloons have failed. It means there are no shortcuts to bring around one-third of the world’s population reliable internet access.”

Photo: loon

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