Friday 22 January 2021 12:46 pm

It's game over for Alphabet's Loon balloon broadband adventure

Alphabet, the parent company of Google, said last night it will shut down its high-altitude broadband connectivity venture Loon.

The announcement is at odds with its recent successful endeavours. Loon raised $125m from a SoftBank unit in 2019, and in April 2020 it launched the first balloons to provide commercial connectivity service to Kenyans following the approval of its services by the government.

Loon, which was unveiled in 2013, used technology taking the components of a cell tower and redesigning them to be durable and light enough to be carried by a balloon 20km up in the sky.

Its mission was to bring connectivity to unserved communities around the world, “the last billion users”, cooperating with local telecommunications companies and governments.

The firm made a name for itself when it helped to restore cell service after a hurricane in Puerto Rico in 2017.

However, the company has said that despite its technical achievements like precisely navigating balloons in the stratosphere, creating mesh network in the sky, the venture is no longer commercially viable after failing to find a sustainable business model and partners for the project.

Chief executive of Loon, Alastair Westgarth, wrote in a blog post: “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.

“Developing radical new technology is inherently risky, but that doesn’t make breaking this news any easier.”

Loon will now be winding down projects in Kenya, though some of the technology used will live on in Alphabet’s Project Taara, using light beam technology to bring high speed internet in to communities in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Separately, the firm said it had pledged a fund of $10m to support non-profits and businesses focused on connectivity, internet, entrepreneurship and education in Kenya.

Loon is the second of Google’s connectivity projects to be put to an end in the last year, as Google Station was shut down in February 2020. This endeavour provided internet connectivity at over 400 railway stations in India, but became less commercially viable as mobile data prices decreased.

The field of extending broadband to unserved communities is seeing increasing competition from firms like Space X and its Starlink satellite service project. Amazon’s Project Kuiper was also granted approval last July to launch and operate a constellation of 3,236 internet satellites.