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Daily Briefing: Alphabet is Shutting Down Project Loon in Kenya

Google parent company Alphabet, has disclosed that it is shutting down its balloon-powered mobile Internet service, Loon in Kenya.

Founded in 2011, Loon aimed to bring connectivity to areas of the world where building cell towers is too expensive or treacherous using balloons the length of tennis courts and solar-powered networking gear.

But the wireless carriers which Loon saw as buyers questioned the technical and political viability of the idea.

The plan to shut down Loon was announced late Thursday, ending what started out nine years ago as one of Google’s secret projects in its so-called “moonshot factory,” a division now called X. Google, Loon and X all are owned by Alphabet Inc., which draws upon Google’s digital advertising empire finance risky ideas like internet-beaming balloons and another high-profile flop, internet-connected glasses.

Loon was viewed as a crazy idea from the start. Yet Google’s hopes for the project were a lofty as the high-flying balloons themselves when the company finally took the wraps off the project in New Zealand in June 2013.

The idea behind Loon was to build a network of balloons to expand internet connectivity to underserved areas and disaster zones and was initially part of an Alphabet “moonshot factory” known as X, which aims to create projects to disrupt new sectors.

It’s launch in Kenya was the first application of balloon-powered internet in Africa. The ambitious goal at that time was to launch thousands of massive balloons 12 miles (20 kilometers) into the stratosphere in order to bridge the gaping digital divide between the world’s 4.8 billion unwired people and their 2.2 billion plugged-in counterparts.

The project was hailed as a game-changer for connectivity for residents in the counties, raising optimism on access to applications such as online learning, telemedicine and remote working.

Loon’s giant, transparent plastic balloons are powered by solar panels and navigated using artificial intelligence systems that allow them to ride high-altitude winds to ideal locations, or loop in patterns that create consistent webs of internet coverage in the sky.

Internet in Africa: Beyond Accessibility, Opportunities and Threats

The project was launched in Kenya in 2018 in partnership with Telkom Kenya and sought to enable internet access to remote areas where setting up the traditional infrastructure is difficult or economically unviable. By last year, the project had however not kicked off over regulatory issues.

The laggard nature of Kenya’s bureaucracy process as the major hindrance, stated the ICT Cabinet Secretary Joe Mucheru.

The ambitious project, however, went live in July last year. The project was given a green light by the government in March after schools shutdown and movement was restricted in and out of Kenya’s capital, Nairobi due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Utilizing a fleet of around 35 ballons, the balloons can beam 4G LTE signals to cover nearly 50,000 square kilometres. The project was providing signals to Telkom subscribers across western and central. Areas covered included Iten, Eldoret, Baringo, Nakuru, Kakamega, Kisumu, Kisii, Bomet, Kericho, and Narok.

Alastair Westgarth, Loon’s CEO said: “Loon’s journey is coming to an end. Thank you to everyone who believed in us and our mission of connecting people everywhere.”

Telkom Kenya, said their joint service with Loon will run until March 1.

“Over the coming months, the Loon team will work closely with Telkom to ensure the operations of the technology’s pilot service are wrapped up safely and smoothly,” Telkom said in a statement.

Loon’s sustainability issues

Astro Teller, X lead said: “When we unveiled Loon in June 2013, we meant everything in its name. It was a way-out-there and risky venture.”

“Sadly, despite the team’s groundbreaking technical achievements over the last 9 years doing many things previously thought impossible the road to commercial viability has proven much longer and riskier than hoped. So we’ve made the difficult decision to close down Loon. In the coming months, we’ll begin winding down operations and it will no longer be an Other Bet within Alphabet.”

On the African continent, Alphabet had also ventured into a new market, Mozambique. It had partnered with Vodacom to enable reliable 4G internet in two provinces in the country Cabo Delgado and Niassa provinces which have proved to be hard to cover in the past.

Established as an independent company within Alphabet in 2018, the venture was a prominent so-called “other bet” for the tech giant, a category including the Waymo self-driving car project and in February 2020 Alphabet shut down Makani, which used high-tech kites to tap into wind energy for electricity.

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