BY SALIM KALANZI
Google’s parent-company Alphabet is scrapping a company set up to build giant balloons to beam the internet to rural areas.
Loon was a long-term experimental bet from the tech giant’s “X” business unit. But it failed to get costs low enough to make it sustainable, its chief executive said in a blog post on Thursday announcing the winding-down.
In 2018, the Loon project had been lunched in over 19 countries. In East Africa, flights commenced in Kenya and Project Loon was exploring opportunities in Uganda.
Technology experts said one of the problems with Loon was that many people in rural areas couldn’t afford the 4G phones that Loon required or weren’t interested in getting access.
The scrapping of Loon means plans to implement the project in Uganda goes with it. The shut down also comes one year after Alphabet closed another experimental business called Makani, which provided wind power from gigantic kites.
Stakeholders and officials from the National Information Technology Authority (NITA-U) had welcomed the project entry in the country saying “internet access in rural areas is set to be increased.”
Loon had signed a key access airspace agreement with Uganda for the project. The deal granted Loon overflight rights crucial to its plans to provide floating balloon-enabled internet services. The balloons were to be the size of tennis courts and self-navigating.
“While we’ve found a number of willing partners along the way, we haven’t found a way to get the costs low enough to build a long-term, sustainable business,” Loon chief executive Alastair Westgarth wrote.
“Developing radical new technology is inherently risky, but that doesn’t make breaking this news any easier. Today, I’m sad to share that Loon will be winding down.”
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Loon was set up nine years ago but has struggled to make a profit from bringing the internet to remote places via high-altitude balloons.
“The arc of innovation is long and unpredictable,” Westgarth added in the blog.
The Loon balloons, powered by an on-board solar panel, provide fourth generation (4G) coverage to under-served areas. In Uganda, reports show that one out of five women in rural areas access the Internet.