Loon’s bubble bursts—Alphabet shuts down Internet balloon company

When Google introduced “Undertaking Loon” in 2013, a operating joke behind the undertaking was that nobody thought a community of flying Web balloons was a possible concept. Eight years later, Google has determined {that a} community of flying Web balloons is certainly not a possible concept. Loon introduced it is shutting down, citing the shortage of a “long-term, sustainable enterprise.”

Loon CEO (Loon was ultimately spun out into an Alphabet firm) Alastair Westgarth writes:

We speak so much about connecting the subsequent billion customers, however the actuality is Loon has been chasing the toughest drawback of all in connectivity—the final billion customers: The communities in areas too tough or distant to achieve, or the areas the place delivering service with current applied sciences is simply too costly for on a regular basis individuals. Whereas we’ve discovered plenty of prepared companions alongside the way in which, we haven’t discovered a option to get the prices low sufficient to construct a long-term, sustainable enterprise. Creating radical new know-how is inherently dangerous, however that doesn’t make breaking this information any simpler. Right now, I’m unhappy to share that Loon shall be winding down.

Google additionally cited financial issues when it shut down Titan Aerospace in 2017, a plan to ship the Web through drone.

The identify “Loon” got here partly from the truth that the undertaking makes use of flying balloons as a type of ultra-low-orbit satellite tv for pc, but in addition from how “loony” the thought sounded to everybody exterior the undertaking. Google’s introductory blog post defined the thought of a flying community of Web balloons and adopted up by saying, “The concept could sound a bit loopy—and that’s a part of the explanation we’re calling it Undertaking Loon—however there’s stable science behind it.”

The science principally appeared to work out. Loon’s gross sales pitch was that about half of the world was not on the Web. The offline areas are too distant, with out sufficient backhaul to construct a standard Web infrastructure. So let’s construct all the things right here and fly it over there, after which everybody can use our flying Web infrastructure within the sky. The Loon balloons have been flying cellular phone towers—they may ship an LTE sign all the way down to common smartphones (the most cost effective computer systems we’ve got) with no particular tools for the top consumer. There was additionally a house model of Loon with a cute purple balloon antenna. Google needed to combine Loon balloons into the normal cellular phone community and had partnerships with AT&T, Telkom Kenya, and Telefonica in Peru.

Every flying tower was a tennis-court-sized polyethylene helium balloon with an altitude management system, photo voltaic panels, a satellite tv for pc uplink for Google’s air site visitors management, and all of the cell tower bits. The balloons would fly round 20KM above the Earth—far decrease than a low-orbit satellite tv for pc—and type a mesh community between themselves. The mesh community must be huge sufficient to cowl the offline space and in addition huge sufficient to beam all the way down to the normal Web, bringing the entire community on-line. Loon did not have any directional management, relying as an alternative on differing wind instructions at varied altitudes. On the peak of the undertaking, Google was launching 250 balloons a yr, they usually may keep floating for 300 days earlier than they wanted to be recovered. I do not suppose Google ever printed an uptime metric, however Loon did have its makes use of. At one level, Loon delivered connectivity to 200,000 people in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria knocked out the land-based infrastructure. A industrial Loon service launched in Kenya in 2020.

It appears like the issue with Loon was that it was such a singular answer with tons of particular tools, and should you’re focusing on individuals on the opposite facet of the digital divide with little shopping for energy, in fact they cannot afford to pay for all that {hardware} by themselves. On this regard, a undertaking like SpaceX’s Starlink appears higher fitted to bridging the digital divide. Starlink has the wealthy, developed world pay for the infrastructure, after which SpaceX may subsidize entry for growing nations. Loon would have actually been extra handy because it was a flying cellular phone tower with a sign that beamed on to your smartphone (Starlink requires a pizza-box-sized antenna) however while you’re speaking about having no option to get the Web in any respect, the extra scalable answer appears higher.

A few of Loon’s know-how will stay on in one other Alphabet Web entry undertaking, Undertaking Taara, which goals to ship the Web through a giant laser beam. Google’s wild experiments by no means finish, do they?

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