Google parent Alphabet Inc is shutting down its internet balloon business, Loon, which aimed to provide a less expensive alternative to cell towers, saying on Thursday that “the road to commercial viability has proven much longer and riskier than hoped.”
Founded in 2011, Loon aimed to bring connectivity to areas of the world where building cell towers is too expensive or treacherous by using balloons the length of tennis courts to float solar-powered networking gear high above the Earth. But the wireless carriers that Loon saw as buyers of its technology have questioned its technical and political viability.
“The road to commercial viability has proven much longer and riskier than hoped,” Astro Teller, who leads X, revealed.
“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,” Loon Chief Executive Alastair Westgarth said
He adds: Loon’s legacy would include advancing helium balloons to last hundreds of days in the sky and developing communications equipment that could deliver cell coverage across an area 200 times bigger than an average tower can.
Down and out
“In the coming months, we’ll begin winding down operations and it will no longer be an Other Bet within Alphabet.”
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.
Over the coming months, most of the Loon team will be moving on. ‘ ‘We’re working to take care of employees and hope to help many find alternative roles at X, Google and Alphabet. A small group of the Loon team will stay to ensure Loon’s operations are wrapped up smoothly and safely — this includes winding down Loon’s pilot service in Kenya. Although Loon is going away, our commitment to connectivity isn’t. Today we’re pledging a fund of $10M to support nonprofits and businesses focussed on connectivity, Internet, entrepreneurship and education in Kenya.’’ Astro Teller said
December last year, Loon senior officials signed overflight agreement with Uganda government. They signed the agreement in Kampala. The overflight permissions in Africa are key as Loon works towards the provision of service in Kenya and beyond.
Teller observes that : We hope that Loon is a stepping stone to future technologies and businesses that can fill in blank spots on the globe’s map of connectivity. To accelerate that, we’ll be exploring options to take some of Loon’s technology forward. We want to share what we’ve learned and help creative innovators find each other — whether they live amidst the telcos, mobile network operators, city and country governments, NGOs or technology companies.