San Francisco: Google’s parent company Alphabet announced on Friday that it will close “Loon”, a high-profile project that aims to provide wireless internet through a hot air balloon flight in the stratosphere because it is not commercially viable.
The idea behind Loon was to build a network of balloons to expand internet connectivity to underserved areas and disaster zones and was initially part of an Alphabet “moonshot factory” known as X, which aims to create projects to disrupt new sectors.
In a blog, X’s Astro Teller announced the decision, adding: “Sadly, despite the team’s groundbreaking technical achievements over the last 9 years… the road to commercial viability has proven much longer and riskier than hoped.”
Loon was deployed to provide internet in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria in 2017, as well as after a major earthquake in Peru.
Last year it announced a partnership with American telecom giant AT&T’s infrastructure to keep third-party mobile telecommunications services running in the aftermath of similar disasters.
In July it launched a pilot commercial service in Kenya, prompting the company to proclaim “a new era of stratospheric communications has begun.”
But Loon CEO Alastair Westgarth said on Friday that the company had failed to “reduce costs enough to build a long-term, sustainable business.”
The company said that in the next few months, operations will be reduced, and it hopes that Loon employees will be able to redeploy in Alphabet.
Kenyan local media reported that the plan of Loon’s telecom partner Telkom in the country is now in a “dilemma” after the announcement.
Last Friday, Loon also announced a $10 million fund “to support non-profit organizations and businesses dedicated to connectivity, internet, entrepreneurship, and education in Kenya.”
Loon’s giant transparent plastic balloons are powered by solar panels and use artificial intelligence systems for navigation, so that they can blow high-altitude wind to an ideal location, or form a continuous Internet to cover the sky in a loop.
The joint venture established an independent company under Alphabet in 2018, which is a well-known so-called “other bet” for the technology giant. This category also includes the Waymo self-driving car project and Wing drone delivery.
But Loon is not the first similar project to be cancelled-in February 2020, Alphabet closed Makani, which uses high-tech kites to generate electricity from wind.