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

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When Google introduced “Undertaking Loon” in 2013, a working joke behind the venture 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 dearth of a “long-term, sustainable enterprise.”

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

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We discuss loads about connecting the subsequent billion customers, however the actuality is Loon has been chasing the toughest downside 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 present applied sciences is simply too costly for on a regular basis individuals. Whereas we’ve discovered plenty of prepared companions alongside the best way, we haven’t discovered a technique to get the prices low sufficient to construct a long-term, sustainable enterprise. Creating radical new expertise is inherently dangerous, however that doesn’t make breaking this information any simpler. In the present day, 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 by way of drone.

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

The science largely 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 conventional Web infrastructure. So let’s construct every thing 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 mobile phone towers—they might ship an LTE sign all the way down to common smartphones (the most cost effective computer systems we now have) with no particular gear for the top person. There was additionally a house model of Loon with a cute pink balloon antenna. Google wished to combine Loon balloons into the normal mobile phone community and had partnerships with AT&T, Telkom Kenya, and Telefonica in Peru.

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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 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 kind a mesh community between themselves. The mesh community must be huge sufficient to cowl the offline space and likewise 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 top of the venture, Google was launching 250 balloons a yr, they usually might keep floating for 300 days earlier than they wanted to be recovered. I do not assume 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 business Loon service launched in Kenya in 2020.

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It seems like the issue with Loon was that it was such a singular resolution with tons of particular gear, and in case 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 venture like SpaceX’s Starlink appears higher suited to bridging the digital divide. Starlink has the wealthy, developed world pay for the infrastructure, after which SpaceX might subsidize entry for creating international locations. Loon would have actually been extra handy because it was a flying mobile 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 technique to get the Web in any respect, the extra scalable resolution appears higher.

A few of Loon’s expertise will reside on in one other Alphabet Web entry venture, Undertaking Taara, which goals to ship the Web by way of a giant laser beam. Google’s wild experiments by no means finish, do they?

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