Loon, Google’s balloon-internet project aimed at providing internet services for the underserved is getting shut down. The subsidiary announced the project is winding down because it’s no longer sustainable.
“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: 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,” Alastair Westgarth, Loon CEO wrote on Medium.
“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. 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,” he added.
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Last July, Loon launched the internet balloon in Kenya in partnership with Telkom after many trials, and recorded a measure of success that kept hope alive that the project will be successful.
The service was designed to cover a region of about 50,000 sq.km of rural Kenya.
In the past, Loon had been used to provide internet services in times of distress. For instance, in 2017, during the massive flooding in Peru, and after Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico, it helped provide the internet for about 200,000 people.
Founded in 2011, Loon works by beaming internet connectivity from ground stations to balloons 20 km overhead. The balloons are linked to the ground stations that have been connected to Telkom’s network. The ground stations use millimeter wave spectrum to send connectivity from the ground to the balloons overhead.
However, there were challenges. For instance, in Kenya, Loon acknowledged that impediments like the wind patterns and restricted airspace would hinder internet service. And because the balloons are solar-powered, users will only have the 4GLte internet service from 6: 00 am to 9: 00 pm. But the companies hope that the technology will get better as they gain more experience flying in Kenya, and dispatching more balloons to the service region.
The shutdown means that the 2019 partnership between Loon and SoftBank’s unit, HAPSMobile, who invested $125 million into the internet company, to bring more people, places, and things online, may have ended.
Loon was created using what engineers called a “garbage bag-looking” balloon for early stage prototypes. After years of tests, in 2018, it became Alphabet, Google’s parent company subsidiary.
Loon’s failure means that Africa now lost a close chance of filling its wide internet deficit. A 2019 report by the Alliance for Affordable Internet said only about 28% of Africa’s over 1.3 billion people have access to the internet. Majority of those who lack access to the internet are rural dwellers, and that made Loon their only viable option to get online.
Google and Facebook have satellite and undersea cable projects aimed to provide internet service for the world’s underserved, but they have been dragging feet.