Google shutting down its internet balloon project Loon

22 Jan 2021

A loon balloon floating in the sky. Image: Loon

The company is calling time on the project as its path to commercial viability was ‘much longer and riskier than hoped’.

Google is pulling its internet balloons from the sky, shutting down Loon as it was unable to make a business case for the project.

Loon built high-altitude balloons that could carry equipment for beaming cellular connectivity into remote areas that would be otherwise cut off from internet services.

It was one of Google’s ‘moonshots’, part of the research division X that has invested in ambitious but costly projects, such as self-driving cars. Loon was spun out as its own company in 2018.

Google’s parent Alphabet has decided to call time on the endeavour after nearly 10 years as it was unable to make it a sustainable business.

Astro Teller, head of the X lab, wrote in a blog post that despite nearly a decade of work, Loon had run its course.

“The road to commercial viability has proven much longer and riskier than hoped. So we’ve made the difficult decision to close down Loon,” Teller said.

The operation will be wound down over the next few months, with staff placed elsewhere in X or Google.

Loon ran several pilots of the technology, first through a test with farmers in rural New Zealand and then delivering communications services in Puerto Rico and Peru following natural disasters in those countries. It ran its first commercial use of the balloons in Kenya.

While Google’s balloon dreams are over, Teller said that company remains interested in developing new means of delivering connectivity.

“We hope that Loon is a stepping stone to future technologies and businesses that can fill in blank spots on the globe’s map of connectivity. To accelerate that, we’ll be exploring options to take some of Loon’s technology forward.”

Loon was largely financed by Google and Alphabet since its inception. But in 2019 it raised $125m from HAPSmobile, a joint venture between SoftBank and AeroVironment, a US defence contractor that specialises in drones.

Google added that it would commit $10m to non-profits and businesses in Kenya that were working on connectivity and education.

Jonathan Keane is a freelance business and technology journalist based in Dublin