Alphabet, the parent company of Google has announced that it is shutting down its balloon internet subsidiary, Loon LLC after 9 years of surfing the stratospheric winds citing risks of commercial viability. The closure comes just nine months after Loon launched its first commercial internet service in Kenya in July last year which comprised of a fleet of about 35 balloons that covered an area of around 50,000 square kilometers.
President Kenyatta had in March announced that the Kenya Civil Aviation Authority and Google Loon had signed an agreement to allow Loon’s balloons to fly over Kenya’s airspace to enhance 4G data health coverage. The agreement was aimed at fostering communication and enabling Kenyans to retain and enhance remote access to their offices and enterprises during the COVID-19 lockdown. Mr. Kenyatta said the intervention was meant to enable Kenya to retain her competitive advantage in ICT and innovation in the midst of the coronavirus crisis while at the same time laying foundations for greater expansion.
The project would later provide internet services in some areas of Iten, Eldoret, Baringo, Nakuru, Kakamega, Kisumu, Kisii, Bomet, Kericho, and Narok with Loon and Telkom registering an uplink speed of 4.74 Mbps, a downlink speed of 18.9 Mbps, and latency of 19 milliseconds (ms) in one field testing session.
Astro Teller, nicknamed “Captain of Moonshots” and leader of Alphabet research and development arm, X announced the Loon shutdown saying despite the team’s groundbreaking technical achievements over the last 9 years — doing many things previously thought impossible, like 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 had proven ‘much longer and riskier than hoped.’
“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,” he wrote in a blog post.
“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,” added Astro Teller.
Astro said the team at Loon will in the coming months be moving to find alternative roles at X, Google, and Alphabet to ensure Loon’s operations are wrapped up smoothly and safely in the arrears covered by the project which includes the pilot service in Kenya. He, however, reiterated the company’s commitment to connectivity and announced a $10M fund to support nonprofits and businesses focused on connectivity, internet, entrepreneurship, and education in Kenya.
“We hope that Loon is a stepping stone to future technologies and businesses that can fill in blank spots on the globe’s map of connectivity. To accelerate that, we’ll be exploring options to take some of Loon’s technology forward. We want to share what we’ve learned and help creative innovators find each other — whether they live amidst the telcos, mobile network operators, city and county governments, NGOs, or technology companies,” he said.
He assured that the X Company will stay focused on exploring long-term, far-out technologies with huge promise, while at the same time being mindful of the opportunity costs of any single investment. Loon was launched in June 2013 and was graduated from a moonshot to an independent company within Alphabet in 2018. Its vision was to bring abundant, affordable internet access through polythene balloons filled with helium. Each balloon according to the company, carried an antenna, which relays internet signals transmitted from the ground, extending coverage over an area of 5,000sq KM.