Alphabet shuts down Loon and its balloons

That crazy science experiment that started out as Project Loon to deliver internet to hard-to-reach areas is going away. X Captain of Moonshots Astro Teller and Loon CEO Alastair Westgarth announced Loon’s final flight in separate blogs on Thursday.

Google introduced Project Loon in 2013, and it later became an entity within Google parent Alphabet. X is Alphabet’s research lab, aka The Moonshot Factory.

The plan was to use the balloons to deliver internet in areas too difficult or remote to reach through other means, or areas where delivering service using other technologies was just too expensive for most people.

It was a moonshot – and some said it would never work. But they were able to create the balloons, launch them into the stratosphere and steer them over areas to deliver internet connectivity in hard-to-reach places or regions hit by natural disasters, like Puerto Rico in 2017.

“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,” Westgarth explained

“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,” Teller wrote

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Just last year, Loon launched service in Kenya, marking a first in several ways, including the first non-emergency use of Loon to provide service on a large-scale basis. Loon’s strategy was to partner with telecom service providers in the markets where it launched, and in South Africa, Telkom Kenya was one of its partners.  

Loon’s pilot service in Kenya will continue to run until March before the Loon team moves to wind down service operations, according to an X spokesperson. A fund of $10 million is being established to support nonprofits and businesses focused on connectivity, internet, entrepreneurship and education in Kenya.

Limited disruption to consumers is expected because Loon is not a direct-to-consumer service. Instead, Loon has acted as a service provider to local mobile network operators, which supply the LTE connections to Loon.  

Loon's history includes an experimental pilot in New Zealand, where a small group of Loon pioneers tested the technology. The results of the pilot test, as well as subsequent tests in New Zealand, California's Central Valley and Northeast Brazil, were used to improve the technology. There were even times when balloons were reported as UFO sightings over Kentucky.

Loon exited X to become a business within Alphabet in 2018, the same time Wing took flight. Wing is a drone delivery business; the use of its service grew 500% in 2020 over 2019 as people sought to limit contact with other people.

RELATED: Project Loon, Wing graduate to independent status within Alphabet

The hope is that at least some of Loon’s technology will live on to support another generation of technology. The high bandwidth optical communication links that were first used to beam a connection between Loon balloons already is being used in Project Taara, according to Teller.

Taara’s mission also is to bring connectivity to underserved locations. It’s developing wireless optical communication technology that delivers high-speed, high-capacity connectivity over long distances using beams of light.