After 9-years, Alphabet is bringing Loon, its internet balloons project, to an end. Launched in 2013 as a possible way to provide broadband internet access to underserved areas using balloons in the sky, the project has proved not to be commercially viable, according to X, an Alphabet company.

In Africa, Loon was already exploring some commercial partnerships in both Kenya, with the hope of bridging the digital divide, as well as in Mozambique to provide internet access in rural areas.

"Sadly, despite the teamโ€™s groundbreaking technical achievements over the last 9 years โ€” doing many things previously thought impossible, like precisely navigating balloons in the stratosphere, creating a mesh network in the sky, or developing balloons that can withstand the harsh conditions of the stratosphere for more than a year โ€” the road to commercial viability has proven much longer and riskier than hoped. So weโ€™ve made the difficult decision to close down Loon. In the coming months, weโ€™ll begin winding down operations," wrote Eric 'Astro' Teller, Captain of Moonshots at X - an Alphabet company that's building and betting on groundbreaking new technology solutions.

Internet access in Africa

In 2020, GSMA released a report titled "The Mobile Economy Sub-Saharan Africa 202 Report." In it they highlighted that of a total of 477 mobile phone subscribers across Africa, 272 million of them were mobile internet users.

Although the number of internet subscribers is increasing and encouraging, the concern is the quality of service of the mobile internet access used. The quality of service is also among some of the factors that have an impact on the widening digital divide globally.

With Loon's broadband internet balloons, it was hoped that the type of internet access offered would not only be affordable but also of good quality.

Commercial viability

Unfortunately for Loon, they couldn't find a relatively low-risk business model that was also commercially viable. This is also partly why most efforts to provide internet access to underserved markets across Africa are mostly private companies doing them for a profit, as is the case with the recently announced 4G LTE network by Tizeti in Nigeria's Edo State.

After all, someone must pay for the maintenance of the telecommunications infrastructure.

"Some of Loonโ€™s technology โ€” like the high bandwidth (20Gbps+) optical communication links that were first used to beam a connection between balloons bopping in the stratosphere โ€” already lives on in Project Taara. This team is currently working with partners in Sub-Saharan Africa to bring affordable, high-speed internet to unconnected and under-connected communities starting in Kenya," concluded Teller.

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