Google’s ambitious Loon internet balloon project has crash-landed

A Loon balloon aloft
A Loon balloon aloft
Image: Loon/Google X
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In the world of Big Tech there has long been a important obsession about getting the internet to the “next billion” people. The idea was that while a few billion people in mostly advanced and wealthy economies were already taking the internet’s availability for granted the bigger challenge was about how to get the internet to next billion who didn’t have it.

Over the second half of the last decade the internet has indeed reached more of that next billion particularly in the busy, fast-growing urban areas of Africa, Asia, Central and South America.

But in 2011, Google X, the company’s moonshot factory, a unit set up to launch experimental technologies, decided to focus on a tougher challenge: how to reach the “last billion”, which by some estimates is actually made up as many 4 billion people. Many of these people are in remote, rural areas. Google X’s bet was to use balloons to reach a larger percentage of unconnected people, mostly in the rural areas.

The technology worked by floating internet-connected balloons into the stratosphere and serving as an option for local telecoms companies to reach more customers with internet access rather than have to spend the hundreds of million dollars required to build out a physical internet backbone to reach a relatively small number of people in each remote area.

A Loon balloon takes flight from its launcher
A Loon balloon takes flight from its launcher
Image: Loon/Google X

In Africa, Loon’s experiment was run in Kenya in partnership with Telkom Kenya, Kenya’s third largest mobile network. Loon technology launched 35 balloons mostly away from Nairobi, the country’s capital, which is already relatively saturated with internet connection from mobile network operators.

But now Alphabet, the parent company of Google X and Loon, is pulling the plug on  “balloon-powered internet access”.  The challenge seemed to be its business model.

“The road to commercial viability has proven much longer and riskier than hoped. So we’ve made the difficult decision to close down Loon,” says Astro Teller, the CEO of X and chairman of Loon’s board in a statement.

Loon says its current internet subscribers will not be affected by the closure of Loon as it only acted as a service provider to local mobile network operators and not a direct consumer service a Loon spokesperson said.

In Kenya, the service will continue to run until March, giving the Loon team enough time to wind down operations. Some of Loon’s technology like Project Taara which started its pan-African rollout in Kenya will continue to provide high-speed internet to unconnected and under-connected communities in Kenya.

Loon pledged $10 million to support nonprofits and businesses focused on connectivity, internet, entrepreneurship and education in Kenya as it exits.

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