Google’s parent company, Alphabet, is done exploring the idea of using a fleet of balloons to beam high-speed internet in remote parts of the world.
On Thursday evening, Alphabet said that it was winding down Loon, a 9-year-old project, and a 2.5-year old spin-off firm, after failing to find a sustainable business model and partners for one of its most prominent moonshot projects.
The demise of Loon, which grabbed the limelight after the project helped restore cell services knocked out by a hurricane in Puerto Rico, comes a year after the Android-maker ended Google Station, its other significant connectivity effort to bring internet to the next billion users.
Through Station, Google provided internet connectivity at over 400 railway stations in India and sought to replicate the model in other public places in more nations.
That said, Alphabet’s move today is still surprising. Just last year, Loon had secured approval from Kenya’s government to launch the first balloons to provide commercial connectivity services — something it did successfully achieve months later, giving an impression that things were moving in the right direction.
Loon, which raised $125 million from a SoftBank unit in 2019, has long stated its mission as: “Loon is focused on bringing connectivity to be unserved and underserved communities around the world. We are in discussions with telecommunications companies and governments worldwide to provide a solution to help extend internet connectivity to these underserved areas.”
Perhaps the growing interest of SpaceX and Amazon in this space influenced Alphabet’s decision — if not, the two firms will have to confront some problematic feasibility questions in the future.
“We talk a lot about connecting the next billion users, but the reality is Loon has been chasing the hardest problem of all in connectivity — the last billion users,” wrote Alastair Westgarth, chief executive of Loon, in a blog post.
“The communities in areas too difficult or remote to reach, or the areas where delivering service with existing technologies is just too expensive for everyday people. While we’ve found several willing partners along the way, we haven’t found a way to get the costs low enough to build a long-term, sustainable business. Developing revolutionary new technology is inherently risky, but that doesn’t make breaking this news any easier.”
The blog post characterized Loon’s connectivity effort as a success.
“The Loon team is proud to have catalyzed an ecosystem of organizations working on providing connectivity from the stratosphere. 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 several important technical contributions,” wrote Westgarth.