Google-parent company Alphabet is abandoning one of its ambitious plans for the future: Loon.
Loon was a project under Google’s X division, a research and development facility that tackles Google’s more ambitious and forward-oriented projects, like its self-driving vehicle subsidiary Waymo.
Loon’s goal was to beam down internet using a network of balloons, traveling along the edge of space, to expand internet connectivity to rural areas, fill coverage gaps, and improve network resilience in the event of a disaster. It was often compared to Elon Musk’s SpaceX Starlink project, which aims to use a network of satellites to provide the world with universal, affordable internet.
Loon CEO Alastair Westgarth made the announcement that his company was shutting down in a post 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,” he said. “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.
Back in 2019, SoftBank, which is backed by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF), invested $125 million in Loon.
“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.”
Rich DeVaul, a founder of the project who is no longer with Alphabet, told Reuters that surging demand for mobile connectivity made towers cost-effective in more of the world than he had estimated a decade ago, diminishing the need for Loon.
“The problem got solved faster than we thought,” he said in an interview with the news agency.
Loon partnered with telecom firm Telefonica over many months in 2017 to provide basic Internet connectivity to tens of thousands of people across Peru who were displaced due to extreme rains and flooding.
“After Hurricane Maria, [Loon] helped about 200,000 people get online in Puerto Rico,” CNN reported. “Last year, the company also brought its balloons to Africa, marking the first commercial launch of a service of its kind in the region. Telkom Kenya, the mobile service provider it partnered with, said Friday that it would discontinue the pilot with Loon in March.”
As for the legacy the company will leave behind, Westgarth highlighted that they “found ways to safely fly a lighter-than-air vehicle for hundreds of days in the stratosphere to anywhere in the world. We built a system for quickly and reliably launching a vehicle size of a tennis court, and we built a global supply chain for an entirely new technology and business.”
Among the company’s achievements is also the upscaling of its communications equipment from technology “that could have been made in a college dorm room, to a communications system capable of delivering mobile internet coverage over an 11,000 square kilometer area — 200x that of an average cell tower.”