After nearly a decade of giving things a red-hot go, the Loon team have called it quits on their broadband via balloon aspirations.
Following several years of behind-the-scenes development, Google officially announced Project Loon back in 2013. It involved the use of balloons to create an aerial wireless network able to deliver internet connectivity in underserved areas where mobile or fixed wireless broadband services weren’t available.
In 2018, X (formerly Google X) announced Loon had been spun off as a separate business under the Alphabet (Google parent company) umbrella. There wasn’t a great deal of news after that until January 2019, when a new Advisory Board was established consisting of wireless innovators and veterans.
News went pretty quiet again, but in in July last year Loon said it had an initial service region in Kenya spanning nearly 50,000 square kilometers. As well as providing services in Kenya, Loon was deployed in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria in 2017, and in 2017 and 2019 in Peru when disasters struck.
But delivering broadband services via balloon is a very tricky business – there were a number of crashes, including a report of a “UFO” that landed in a jungle in the Democratic Republic of Congo that turned out to be a Loon balloon.
“The road to commercial viability has proven much longer and riskier than hoped,” says an official statement. “.. we’ve made the difficult decision to close down Loon. In the coming months, we’ll begin winding down operations and it will no longer be an Other Bet within Alphabet.”
So, what will happen to the folks in Kenya using the service? There’s some good news there, with X pledging a fund of $10M to support nonprofits and businesses focused on connectivity, Internet, entrepreneurship and education in the country – but whether they’ll have continuity of some sort of service isn’t clear.
Some of the technology developed for Loon will also continue to live on in other projects.
In addition to the challenges involved with balloon broadband, perhaps the Loon team saw the writing on the wall with SpaceX’s Starlink service and Amazon’s Project Kuiper.
SpaceX and Amazon’s projects involves constellations of small Low Earth Orbit satellites to deliver connectivity, and both companies aim to deliver broadband services across the world. Of the two, SpaceX is well ahead, having sent more than a thousand satellites into space and starting up a beta service; while Amazon is still at the starting gate.