Alphabet bursts Kenya's balloon with shut down of Loon, its internet company

Google loon balloon

A project Loon balloon.  

Photo credit: File | AFP

Google’s parent firm, Alphabet, has killed the idea of using balloons to beam high-speed internet in remote parts of the world.

This is after it announced that it would be shutting down Loon, the nearly decade-old company that launched its first commercial internet service in Kenya in July 2018.

The tech giant cited the project's lack of commercial viability for the move.

“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 CEO Alastair Westgarth said in a blog post yesterday.

“The road to commercial viability has proven much longer and riskier than hoped,” Astro Teller, who leads X - the research and development facility founded by Google - also said in a blog post

“In the coming months, we’ll begin winding down operations and it will no longer be an Other Bet within Alphabet.”

The Kenyan experiment 

Telkom Kenya, in collaboration with Aphabet, had in July last year launched a network of 4G internet balloons, making Kenya the first country in the world to commercially test the viability of the innovation in taking internet to rural communities.

At the time, ICT Cabinet Secretary Joe Mucheru said the project would transform rural economies by helping bridge the huge internet access gap in the country.  

Before that, during the official announcement by President Kenyatta in March 2020, the Head of State lauded Google Loon Services, adding that it was in line with the government’s measures to respond to disruptions caused by the coronavirus pandemic that has seen many people work from home to avoid contracting the respiratory illness.

“In that regard, and to foster communication and enable Kenyans to retain and enhance remote access to the Offices and Enterprises, my administration has granted approvals that will ensure universal 4G Data coverage throughout Kenya,” said the President when he briefed the press at State House Nairobi.

During the launch, Telkom Kenya announced that the service will initially cover a region spanning nearly 50,000 square kilometres, including the areas of Iten, Eldoret, Baringo, Nakuru, Kakamega, Kisumu, Kisii, Bomet, Kericho, and Narok.

In terms of data transfer rate, one of the field testing sessions reported by Loon and Telkom in late June registered an uplink (upload) speed of 4.74 mbps, a downlink (download) speed of 18.9 mbps, and latency of 19 milliseconds. 

The company says it will begin winding down operations and that Loon “will no longer be an Other Bet within Alphabet.” 

“Over the coming months, most of the Loon team will be moving on. We’re working to take care of employees and hope to help many find alternative roles at X, Google and Alphabet. A small group of the Loon team will stay to ensure Loon’s operations are wrapped up smoothly and safely — this includes winding down Loon’s pilot service in Kenya,” Said Astro Teller, who heads X

In late December 2017, a Google high altitude balloon crashed at Nthambiro in Meru, causing a scare among locals. 

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