This article was published on January 22, 2021

Alphabet bursts its balloon-powered internet plans

The Loon project aimed to deliver internet access to underserved areas

Alphabet bursts its balloon-powered internet plans

Alphabet’s moonshot idea of beaming internet connectivity from giant balloons is floating back down to earth.

The Google parent company announced that it’s shutting down the Loon project because the business model is unsustainable.

“The road to commercial viability has proven much longer and riskier than hoped,” said Astro Teller, who leads Alphabet’s experimental X lab, in a Thursday blog post. “So we’ve made the difficult decision to close down Loon.”

The ambitious venture aimed to deliver affordable internet access to unconnected, remote, and underserved areas.

[Read: How this company leveraged AI to become the Netflix of Finland]

The balloons were equipped with directional antennas that transmitted signals to the ground. 

Credit: Alphabet
The antenna successfully transmitted data over 600km between two balloons.

Machine learning algorithms guided the balloons to their destination. Users of the service would then connect to the network through a special antenna attached to their building.

“The idea may sound a bit crazy — and that’s part of the reason we’re calling it Project Loon,”said Project Lead Mike Cassidy when unveiling the project in 2013.

Unfortunately, the idea has proved one moonshot too far. It nonetheless produced several breakthroughs, including a functioning mesh network in the sky and balloons that survived in the stratosphere for more than a year.

Some of the tech’s been added to Project Taara, which uses invisible beams of light to deliver internet connectivity — like fiber optics but without a physical cable.

Loon's early optical communication link tests led to Project Taara.
Credit: Alphabet
Loon’s early optical communication link tests led to Project Taara.

The Loon balloon may have burst, but there’s still hope that its work will help connect the unconnected.

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