Google Grounds Project Loon After 10 Years. Here’s Why It Failed

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Google Grounds Project Loon After 10 Years. Here’s Why It Failed

Assume you are a Google project manager entrusted with figuring out how to deliver internet connection to some of the world’s most distant and isolated regions. There is hardly little infrastructure, and your money is limited. How would you react?

We may not be as inventive as you, but sending enormous self-navigating helium balloons in the sky carrying Wi-Fi routers inside styrofoam beer coolers is definitely not your first thought, if at all. However, as absurd as the proposal may seem, it received the approval of Google’s founders.

Project Loon: Internet From a Balloon

Image Credit: X

In 2011, Alphabet subsidiary Google X (now X Development) started working on an unauthorized project in California with a series of testing runs. The project was expected to be the answer to providing 3G internet to some of the world’s most remote and disadvantaged places.

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Google formally introduced this idea in 2013, naming it Project Loon. “We think it is conceivable to establish a ring of balloons that travel around the world on the stratospheric winds and deliver Internet connection to the planet below,” stated Mike Cassidy, Project Loon’s Project Leader.

Image Credit: X

“As a consequence, we anticipate that balloons will become a viable choice for linking rural, distant, and underserved regions, as well as for assisting with communications during natural catastrophes. The concept may seem a little crazy—part of the reason we’re calling it Project Loon—but there’s strong science behind it.”

Simply expressed, the goal was to employ balloons to transport mobile Wi-Fi routers floating in the stratosphere, bringing internet connectivity to remote areas with little to no existing infrastructure. It was an ambitious endeavor, with as many obstacles and complications as it had possibilities.

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The Problem With Project Loon

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Cassidy and his colleagues were attempting to use a high-altitude platform to give 3G internet connection to fixed regions on the ground. However, doing so invites a lot of difficulties. For one thing, such a platform is vulnerable to the high-altitude winds. Second, attempting to retain everything in one location is both difficult and costly.

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Cassidy and his colleagues devised an unusual solution to this challenge. Instead of attempting to keep the balloons in one spot, they decided to let them float freely in the air while regulating their journey across the sky using wind and solar power. They could maneuver the balloons up and down to capture the breezes they desired.

Image Credit: X

The balloons may so travel at double the height of commercial jets and beam internet connection to the people below. Consider having numerous cell towers floating about in your city’s sky and just connecting to the closest one as they come and go like clouds.

However, as good as that approach was, it was not without problems. “That approach then led to a new problem: how to manage a fleet of balloons sailing across the globe such that each balloon is in the correct place at the appropriate time. We’re dealing with this using advanced algorithms and a lot of computational power “Cassidy elaborated.

So, What Went Wrong?

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It’s one thing to have a fantastic concept with enormous potential; it’s quite another to transform it into a long-term and sustainable company strategy. Loon LLC’s business concept, however, was not simply practical. Despite the backing of several partners and investors, the firm was forced to close its doors in January 2021.

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“Unfortunately, despite the team’s revolutionary technological accomplishments over the previous nine years […] the route to commercial viability has proved far longer and riskier than envisaged,” X Development director Astro Teller said on Medium.

“We speak a lot about connecting the next billion people, but the fact is that Loon has been pursuing the most difficult challenge in connection – the last billion consumers,” said Loon CEO Alastair Westgarth. “Communities that are difficult or distant to access, or where offering service with present technology is just too costly for ordinary people.”

Loon Was Worth the Moonshot

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X Development includes all of Google’s wild “moonshot” ideas. Project Loon began as a wild concept and eventually became a distinct Alphabet business in 2018, “graduated” from being an X Development project.

Despite its difficulties and countless crash-landed balloons, Loon was able to reach some significant milestones and pave the way for similar future endeavors. In February 2016, for example, Google reported creating a steady connection for several hours between two distant balloons reaching over 62 miles (100 km), with a peak speed of 155Mbps.

Image Credit: X

Loon teamed with Japanese multinational company SoftBank and got funds to enhance operations in 2019, one year after becoming an Alphabet subsidiary. The same year, it passed a million hours of stratospheric flight between its balloon fleet.

A Loon balloon flew for 312 days in October 2020, setting a new record. During the company’s dissolution in 2021, Astro Teller revealed that Loon is offering a $10 million fund to help Kenyan NGOs and enterprises focusing on connection, internet, entrepreneurship, and education.

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Project Loon Failed, But Valuable Lessons Were Learned

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A lot can be learnt from unsuccessful ventures like Loon. One example is the sometimes missed distinction between potential and actualization. While investors, partners, and internal engineers embraced the Loon concept, its execution was less than optimal for a long-term and sustainable company.

Second, regardless of its failure, Loon’s technology and advances will be employed by X Development for future moonshot initiatives, including Project Taara. All of the useful data collected by Loon throughout its operation will be utilized to develop other initiatives.

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Teller claimed that a small portion of the Loon team would ensure that the company’s activities, including its trial service in Kenya, are completed efficiently and safely. The others, including Loon’s engineers, research analysts, and other personnel, were offered new jobs at Google, X Development, and Alphabet.

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