After 9 years Alphabet pulls the plug on Loon; Another Google X “moonshot” bites the dust!

After nine years as the high-flyer of the Google X lab, Alphabet is ending Loon, which was one of the company’s high-profile, cutting-edge efforts.  Loon aimed at providing Internet access to rural and remote areas, creating wireless networks with up to 1 Mbit/second speeds using high-altitude balloons at altitudes between 18 and 25 km (11 and 16 miles). As for so many of Google X labs “moonshots,” it was difficult to turn Loon into a business.

“The road to commercial viability has proven much longer and riskier than hoped. So we’ve made the difficult decision to close down Loon,” Astro Teller, who heads Google X, wrote in a blog post. Alphabet said it expected to wind down operations in “the coming months” with the hope of finding other positions for Loon employees at Alphabet.

Sadly, despite the team’s groundbreaking technical achievements over the last 9 years — doing many things previously thought impossible, like precisely navigating balloons in the stratosphere, creating a mesh network in the sky, or developing balloons that can withstand the harsh conditions of the stratosphere for more than a year — the road to commercial viability has proven much longer and riskier than hoped. So 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.

From the farmers in New Zealand who let us attach a balloon communications hub to their house in 2013, to our partners who made it possible to deliver essential connectivity to people following natural disasters in Puerto Rico and Peru, to our first commercial partners in Kenya, to the diverse organizations working tirelessly to find new ways to deliver connectivity from the stratosphere — thank you deeply. Loon wouldn’t have been possible without a community of innovators and risk-takers who are as passionate as we are about connecting the unconnected. And we hope we have reason to work together again before long.

The idea behind Loon was to bring cellular connectivity to remote parts of the world where building a traditional mobile network would be too difficult and too costly. Alphabet promoted the technology as a potentially promising way to bring internet connectivity to not just the “next billion” consumers but the “last billion.”

The giant helium balloons, made from sheets of polyethylene, are the size of tennis courts. They were powered by solar panels and navigated by flight control software that used artificial intelligence to drift efficiently in the stratosphere. While up in the air, they act as “floating cell towers,” transmitting internet signals to ground stations and personal devices.

A Loon launch site in Nevada.  The balloons aimed to bring cellular connectivity to remote parts of the world, but proved too costly.

Credit…Loon LLC, via Associated Press

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Google started working on Loon in 2011 and launched the project with a public test in 2013. Loon became a stand-alone subsidiary in 2018, a few years after Google became a holding company called Alphabet. In April 2019, it accepted a $125 million investment from a SoftBank unit called HAPSMobile to advance the use of “high-altitude vehicles” to deliver internet connectivity.

Last year, Google  announced the first commercial deployment of the Loon technology with Telkom Kenya to provide a 4G LTE network connection to a nearly 31,000-square-mile area across central and western Kenya, including the capital, Nairobi. Before then, the balloons had been used only in emergency situations, such as after Hurricane Maria knocked out Puerto Rico’s cellular network.  In closing down this pilot service in Kenya, Loom said it would pledge $10 million to Kenyan non-profits and businesses offering “connectivity, internet, entrepreneurship, and education.”

Loon was starting to run out of money and had turned to Alphabet to keep its business solvent while it sought another investor in the project, according to a November report in The Information.Image for post

The decision to shut down Loon is another signal of Alphabet’s recent austerity toward its ambitious and costly technology projects. Under Ruth Porat, Alphabet’s chief financial officer since 2015, the company has kept a close watch over the finances of its so-called Other Bets, fledgling business ventures aimed at diversifying from its core advertising business.

Alphabet has aggressively pushed its “Other Moonshot Bets” like Waymo and Verily, a life sciences unit, to accept outside investors and branch out on their own. Projects that failed to secure outside investment or show enough financial promise have been discarded, such as Makani, a project to produce wind energy kites that Alphabet shut down last year.

That austerity has been a notable change from a time when units like X, which had been a favored vanity project of Google’s co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, had autonomy to spend freely to pursue ambitious technology projects even if the financial outlook remained unclear.

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Facebook’s efforts have likewise stumbled, with Mark Zuckerberg’s company deciding in 2018 to ground Aquila, its gigantic, solar-powered drone designed to deliver Internet by laser. “Surprisingly, it’s just not practical,” drolly commented Techcrunch. Instead, it is efforts to beam the net from satellites that seem to be meeting with higher-flying fortunes.

Starlink, the satellite network being built by Elon Musk’s SpaceX, appears to be making fast progress – with 800 satellites, including 60 launched in November.

Its launch of services in the rural UK this month is bad news for OneWeb – which only just emerged from bankruptcy in November with new owners, the UK Government and Bharti Global. Analysts, though, think neither will provide too much of a threat to established Internet providers in urban are

For all that was innovative about its technology, Loon never turned a profit, and the company was tight-lipped about precisely how many users it ever had. It was never a matter of providing free Internet to the masses, but instead, of amplifying the reach of existing telecoms companies to rural populations, via the balloon network. Once connected, clients paid for the Internet, just like anybody else. It just seems there were not enough of them who did.

Its technical advances concerned a type of ballet, using its software system to predict how weather events could move its balloons, then adapting the balloons’ height in accord with wind currents to manipulate their position. The balloons usually lasted a few hundred days, after which they were directed to a landing zone – though the landings weren’t always as accurate as its engineers would have hoped.

References:

https://blog.x.company/loons-final-flight-e9d699123a96

https://medium.com/loon-for-all/loon-draft-c3fcebc11f3f

https://www.lightreading.com/services/google-pops-loon-balloon/d/d-id/766855?

 

 

 

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