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Alphabet shuts down ambitious internet balloon project Loon

Google parent company Alphabet has shut down its internet balloon business, Loon, which worked to beam internet to remote parts of the world. 

The ambitious division, which was founded in 2011, aimed to provide a less expensive alternative to cell towers, saving money for developing countries. 

The tennis court-sized balloons carried solar-powered networking gear high above the Earth and beamed internet access down to the ground.

Alphabet had hoped to put thousands of balloons in the stratosphere, but the project is no longer commercially viable, the firm's CEO said. 

Alphabet has not disclosed how much it has spent on Loon, although it secured $125 million from SoftBank's HAPSMobile in 2019.

Loon balloons fly free and out of sight, scavenging power from card table-sized solar panels that dangle below and gather enough charge in four hours to power them for a day. The balloons sail around the globe on the prevailing winds

This funding was exhausted and the firm has reportedly struggled to raise additional funding since, according to Space News. 

'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,' Loon CEO Alastair Westgarth said in a blog post.   

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

'Today, I’m sad to share that Loon will be winding down.'

Project Loon was developed in Google's secretive X Lab by the same team behind Google Glasses and the driverless car. 

It had aimed to bring connectivity to areas of the world where building cell towers is too expensive or treacherous – such as the Amazon rainforest. 

Developing countries that couldn't cover the high cost of laying fibre cables to get online were hoped to benefit from the project, leading to a dramatic increase in internet access for the likes of Africa and south-east Asia. 

Loon had said that once the project is up and running, the balloons could supply internet to an area of about 780 square miles – twice the size of New York City. 

Loon had said that once the project is up and running, the balloons could supply internet to an area of about 780 square miles – twice the size of New York City

A Google Project Loon internet balloon is seen at the Google I/O 2016 developers conference in Mountain View, California May 19, 2016

When the firm was founded, the original communications equipment included Wi-Fi routers inside styrofoam beer coolers, which 'could have been made in a college dorm room', said Westgarth.

This was scaled up to a communications system capable of delivering mobile internet coverage over an 11,000 square kilometre area – 200 times that of an average cell tower.

The kit could connect from the stratosphere to several types of devices on the ground, from mobile phones to sailing ships to smart sprinklers. 

Each unit consisted of the balloons itself, made of thin, biodegradable plastic, which could spend hundreds of days in the sky.

Balloons were attached to a solar panel to give them energy, as well as a radio, antennas and a computer to check altitude. 

Loon CEO Alastair Westgarth said: 'We hope that some of Loon’s technology will live on to support the next generation of innovators'

The kit could connect from the stratosphere to several types of devices on the ground - from mobile phones to sailing ships to smart sprinklers

But surging demand for mobile connectivity made towers cost-effective in more of the world than the firm had estimated a decade ago, diminishing the need for Loon.

'The problem got solved faster than we thought,' said Rich DeVaul, a founder of the project.

Among some of Loon's challenges was that a carrier would need several balloons at once, and each balloon cost tens of thousands of dollars and lasted only about five months.

Loon had recently brought mobile internet via its technology to in Kenya in 2020 as part of a deal with Telkom Kenya, years behind schedule after regulatory delays. 

To make up for the loss of Loon, Google X revealed it is pledging a fund of $10 million to support nonprofits and businesses focused on connectivity, internet, entrepreneurship and education in Kenya.  

The technology previously proved successful in short projects to provide cell coverage in Peru and Puerto Rico when cell towers were downed by natural disasters. 

Loon had pitched countries and international organisations on contracting with Loon to fly in during future emergencies, but gained little traction.

Project Loon was developed in the company's X Lab by the same team behind Google Glasses and the driverless car.

Pictured, a Loon balloon on its way to Puerto Rico from Nevada. Westgarth said 'We found ways to safely fly a lighter-than-air vehicle for hundreds of days in the stratosphere to anywhere in the world'

'The Loon team is proud to have catalysed an ecosystem of organisations working on providing connectivity from the stratosphere,' said Westgarth. 

'We hope that some of Loon’s technology will live on to support the next generation of innovators.' 

Loon, which employed 200 people as of 2019, may share its technology with carriers, governments or nonprofit groups aiming to bring high-speed internet to the last few places in the world.

Separately, companies backed by billionaire entrepreneurs, such as Elon Musk, Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos, continue to look at offering internet connections using satellites in near-Earth orbit.

Alphabet previously shuttered other entities separate to Google, such as one working on power-generating kites.  

Wing opened for business in Virginia October 2019 when it partnered with FedEx, Walgreens and Super Magnolia, a local grocery store chain in the US. 

PROJECT LOON: HISTORY AND ACHIEVEMENTS 

Project Loon is a network of balloons travelling on the edge of space, designed to connect people to the internet in remote parts of the world.

The balloons travel approximately 12 miles (20km) above the Earth's surface in the stratosphere. 

Winds in the stratosphere are stratified, and each layer of wind varies in speed and direction, so Project Loon uses software algorithms to determine where its balloons need to go. 

It then moves each one into a layer of wind blowing in the right direction. By moving with the wind, the balloons can be arranged to form one large communications network.

The inflatable part of the balloon is called a balloon envelope made from sheets of polyethylene plastic that are 49ft (15 metres) wide and 40ft (12 metres) tall when inflated. 

The balloons harness power from card table-sized solar panels that dangle below them, and they can gather enough charge in four hours to power them for a day.

Each balloon can provide connectivity to a ground area of around 25 miles (40km) in diameter using LTE, also referred to as 4G, technology. 

In 2013, Google launched 30 balloons into the stratosphere from New Zealand.

These balloons floated at altitudes up to 15.5 miles (25km) and travel as fast as 200mph (324 km/h).

In May 2014, Google tested the Project Loon balloons in Piauí, Brazil, marking its first LTE experiments near the equator.

The company worked to cut down leaks by tested the balloons in giant freezers, simulating the conditions at high altitudes.

They also created an Autolauncher system, allowing four people to launch a balloon in just 15 minutes. 

In 2017, Loon said its balloons helped more than 100,000 Puerto Ricans to connect to the internet. 

The firm worked with AT&T and T-Mobile to successfully deliver basic internet to remote areas of Puerto Rico where cellphone towers were knocked out by Hurricane Maria.

'Project Loon' balloons enabled texts, emails and basic web access for people in the country. 

In 2020, Loon deployed its system of balloons to beam high-speed Internet access with Telkom Kenya to cover rural and suburban populations.   

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