Sunday, 07 March 2021

What goes up must come down: Alphabet shuts down Loon

by Harry Baldock, Total Telecom
Friday 22 January 21

High costs mean that the project is simply not commercially viable, says parent company Alphabet

It is a sad day for novel connectivity mediums, with Alphabet announcing the shutting down of its Loon project, which sought to provide connectivity by attaching base stations to balloons some 20km in the air. Loon, founded in 2011, intended to use these floating base stations to provide connectivity to hard-to-reach customers around the world…

It is a sad day for novel connectivity mediums, with Alphabet announcing the shutting down of its Loon project, which sought to provide connectivity by attaching base stations to balloons some 20km in the air.

Loon, founded in 2011, intended to use these floating base stations to provide connectivity to hard-to-reach customers around the world, particularly in regions where conventional infrastructure was simply unfeasible for the operators.

But progress on this complex project has been slow. Regulatory issues surrounding the use of airspace meant that the company’s Kenyan pilot project faced numerous delays, finally being launched last year, 

Similarly, Loon’s airborne connectivity solution is still fundamentally an expensive alternative to traditional infrastructure. The helium balloons carrying the communications equipment can deliver coverage to an area 200-fold larger than a typical cell tower, but each would cost tens of thousands of dollars and would need to be replaced regularly. In a decade since the company’s founding, the challenges of cost and sustainability remain significant. Meanwhile, the cost of deploying traditional towers has been falling due to the technological improvements.

“The problem got solved faster than we thought,” Rich DeVaul, one of the projects founders told Reuters

“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,” said Loon’s CEO Alastair Westgarth.

Other airborne connectivity solutions, such as that being pursued by SoftBank’s subsidiary HAPSMobile, are facing similar difficulties. In this project, High Altitude Platform Stations (HAPS), a type of unmanned aircraft, would be used to supply connectivity, powered by rechargeable batteries and solar panels. Recent tests saw the so-called Sunglider fly continuously for 20 hours, but major improvements will still be required before this can be a viable alternative for rural connectivity.

While such alternative’s to traditional base stations remain attractive, further innovations will be required before they can truly offer a cost-effective option for operators.

For Alphabet, Loon’s closure will mean the gradual closure of their pilot programme and the repositioning of its 200 staff members.

 

Also in the news: 
What are UK operators doing to support their customers during the COVID-19 pandemic?
Is the O2–Virgin Media merger bad for customers? CMA investigates
Cellnex and Deutsche Telekom to merge Dutch towers

 

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