When Google announced “Project Loon” in 2013, a joke behind the project was that no one thought a network of flying internet balloons was a viable idea. Eight years later, Google has decided that a network of flying balloons is indeed not feasible. Lazy Man announced the closure due to lack of “long-term, sustainable business”.
Alastair Westgarth, the CEO of Loon (who eventually split Loon into an Alphabet company) wrote:
We talked a lot about connecting next One billion users, but the reality is that Loon has been pursuing the most difficult problem in connectivity- continued Billion users: The community is too difficult or too remote, or the use of existing technology to provide services is too expensive for ordinary people. Although we have found many willing partners in the process, we have not yet found a way to reduce costs to build a long-term, sustainable business. The development of fundamental new technologies has inherent risks, but this does not make news release easy. Today, I am sad that the share dragon will gradually end.
Google also mentioned economic issues when it closed Titan Titanspace in 2017, a plan to provide the Internet through drones.
The “Moon” is named partly because the project uses flying balloons as a kind of ultra-low orbit satellite, and it also stems from the “stupidity” of the idea to everyone outside the project. Google’s introductory blog post explained the idea of building a rapidly growing Internet balloon network, and then said: “This idea may sound crazy. This is part of the reason we call it “Project Loon”, but there is solid science behind it. Basics.”
Science seems mostly feasible. Loon’s promotion is that about half of the world is not on the Internet. The offline area is too remote and there is not enough backhaul to build a traditional Internet infrastructure. So let’s build everything here and fly it over there, and then everyone can use the Internet infrastructure we fly in the air. Loon balloons are hanging on cell phone towers, and they can pass LTE signals down to regular smartphones (the cheapest computer we have) without requiring special equipment for end users. There is also a home version of Loon with a cute red balloon antenna. Google hopes to integrate Loon balloons into traditional mobile phone networks and has established partnerships with AT&T, Telkom in Kenya, and Telefonica in Peru.
Each flying tower is a polyethylene helium balloon the size of a tennis court with a height control system, solar panels, a satellite uplink for Google air traffic control, and all base station towers. The balloon will fly 20 kilometers above the earth, far below the low-orbit satellites, and form a mesh network between them. The mesh network must be wide enough to cover the offline area, and it must also be wide enough to cover the traditional Internet so that the entire network is online. Loon does not have any direction control, but relies on different wind directions at different heights. At the peak of the project, Google launched 250 balloons each year, they can float for 300 days before they need to be restored. I think Google has never published an uptime indicator, but Loon does have a purpose. Once, after Hurricane Maria destroyed land infrastructure, Loon provided connections to 200,000 people in Puerto Rico. In 2020, a commercial Loon service was launched in Kenya.
It sounds like the problem with Loon is that it is a unique solution that uses a lot of special equipment. If you are targeting people at the other end of the digital divide and have low purchasing power, then of course they cannot afford to use all the hardware alone. In this regard, projects like SpaceX’s Starlink seem to be more suitable for bridging the digital divide. Starlink pays rich infrastructure fees to developed countries, and SpaceX can then subsidize access rights in developing countries. Loon will definitely be more convenient because it is a suspended cell phone tower that transmits the signal directly to the smartphone (Starlink needs an antenna the size of a pizza box), but when you talk about not being able to access the Internet, in short, it is more scalable The solution seems better.
Some of Loon’s technologies will continue to exist another The Alphabet Internet Access Project Taara project aims to provide the Internet through a huge laser beam. Google’s crazy experiments never end, right?