back to article Google's Alphabet sticks a pin in its Loon internet broadband service

Alphabet has stuck a pin in its Project Loon broadband project, which sought to use high-altitude balloons to extend connectivity to areas considered hard to reach by traditional telcos. Word of Loon's cancellation came from the company's CEO, Alastair Westgarth, who attributed the decision to problems in commercialising the …

  1. IGotOut Silver badge

    Well done...

    ..youve discovered what the rest of the world outside the tech bubble knew from day one.

    1. Ragarath

      Re: Well done...

      Came to say the same thing about the loonies. Have an upvote.

    2. deevee

      Re: Well done...

      a totally predictable entry to the "Google Graveyard"

  2. Chris G Silver badge

    Starlink

    Is beginning to look like a bet.

    I saw a youtuber called Wranglerstar who homesteads in the Pacific Northwest, he had just set up a new account and received the kit and thought it was a little expensive but seemed to work well.

    Time will tell if the system is good long term and in theory with more uptake should be cheaper.

    What I liked, was that the system was fairly portable.

    1. KittenHuffer Silver badge

      Re: Starlink

      You must remember that with great uptake comes great contention.

      The will come a point in densely populated areas when there will not be enough bandwidth for the number of users, but Starlinks only way to make more money will be to sign up more users.

      Where is a Spiderman icon when you want one?!?

    2. jmch Silver badge

      Re: Starlink

      Starlink isn't comparable to Loon, it is targeting remote users in wealthy countries who (a) can pay and (b) don't have an alternative. The other thing with Starlink as I understand from a presentation last year... Speed of light is slower through optic fiber than space / air, so Starlink reckon they can get lower latency to do uplink to low-orbit sat, across sats and downlink to target than direct site-to-site connection with optic fibre. If they ca crack that one, it's a jackpot since banks and traders are willing to pay literally billions to have lower-latency connections to exchanges so their traderbots can gain a tiny advantage.

      Meanwhile if you're trying to get broadband to the world's poorest billion people, doesn't matter how cheap you make the kit if your propspective 'customers' can barely buy food. From a commercial sense it would only work if government-sponsored.

      1. spuck

        Re: Starlink

        The thing that I don't understand about Starlink's betting on all these banks and traders willing to pay billions for a lower-latency connection: they already have paid billions to locate their offices and datacenters as close to the exchanges as physically possible.

        Why would having a low-latency satellite connection available in non-clearinghouse cities (i.e., not London, Tokyo, Chicago, or New York) matter to those "willing to pay billions" for a faster connection? All their trading logic is already as close as their billions can get them.

        1. doublelayer Silver badge

          Re: Starlink

          Good point, as the signal still has to come down to Earth somewhere. If the downlink facility isn't as close to the markets, then it's likely that just being closer to the market than the downlink is will be faster. Given that a lot of high-frequency trading equipment is already right next to the market servers, does Starlink plan on buying rooftop space in the same building? That cannot be cheap.

        2. katrinab Silver badge

          Re: Starlink

          But if you are in London for example, getting news from New York or Tokyo a few nanoseconds quicker could make a big difference, especially for things like currency that are traded on multiple markets.

          1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

            Re: Starlink

            As per the reply above, it doesn't matter where the trader is when dealing in nano or milliseconds. It's about having the datacentre and therefore the automatic trading system physically located next door to the stock exchange.

            1. Anonymous Coward
              Anonymous Coward

              Re: Starlink

              And what good is an automated trading system without the instructions on what to trade? It's not just the trading instructions themselves that benefit from a faster flow but also an inside track to the hints and news that make the human brains realize there's an inside track opening. Thus the thought that news traveling through the air can come in faster than the same info traveling over fiber.

          2. Sparkus

            If the difference is nano/milliseconds

            Than a 'human' trader wouldn't be in the decision / data chain anyway. At that level, all of the trading is done computer to computer.

            Remote photoshop contractors? Or single-parent Etsy shops that want to live in the boonies?

            The economics of Starlink haven't really been questioned. It's a bubble company as much as the others are.

            1. katrinab Silver badge
              Meh

              Re: If the difference is nano/milliseconds

              Sure, but events that impact share prices don't (usually) happen inside the exchange.

              For example, major global pandemic happens, so buy shares in laptop and webcam manufacturers, sell shares in travel / leisure operators.

              1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

                Re: If the difference is nano/milliseconds

                Agreed, but shaving a few nanoseconds or even a whole millisecond off that decision is unlikely to have any effect. Shaving that same timespan off the time a robotrader uses to get in first at the "perfect" moment to buy or sell is where it can make a difference.

        3. Toe Knee

          Re: Starlink

          These organizations will try anything to get that latency down. I present to you: HFT over HF radio

          https://sniperinmahwah.wordpress.com/2018/05/07/shortwave-trading-part-i-the-west-chicago-tower-mystery/

      2. rcxb Silver badge

        Re: Starlink

        if you're trying to get broadband to the world's poorest billion people, doesn't matter how cheap you make the kit if your propspective 'customers' can barely buy food. From a commercial sense it would only work if government-sponsored.

        That's equally true of Starlink and Loon, so we're back to just plain price comparisons.

        I previously looked-up weather balloon launches and found costs of around 1mil with endurance of 1mo. Even with the project able to get one to survive for 10 months, and presumably lowering the launch costs, we're still talking thousands of dollars per day in operating costs, for a mediocre data connection.

    3. Kevin McMurtrie Silver badge

      Re: Starlink

      Google bought Skybox Imaging with lofty satellite ideas but incompatible technology and Google's attention span of a puppy doomed it.

  3. ThatOne Silver badge
    WTF?

    Why am I not surprised?

    Balloons... Seriously, why not strap a WiFi repeater on the back of a large bird (a vulture?) too?

    Balloons are unreliable, move around on their own randomly, and even in the best case they don't stay up for very long (apparently less than a year), meaning they need frequent replacement. They might be cheap individually, but if you consider the logistics required, I'm sure the cost skyrockets.

    Sounds more like a "Let's create some buzz" project to me.

    1. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

      Re: Why am I not surprised?

      RFC 2549 for vultures.

    2. tony72

      Re: Why am I not surprised?

      The system worked, they deployed a working system in the real world, so it's hardly as ridiculous as you're trying to make it sound. They got a lot further than most such interesting-but-slightly-impractical-sounding ideas do.

      LEO satellites don't stay up long either, Starlink satellites only have a lifespan of ~4 years, and I'd imagine these balloons were a lot cheaper to replace than satellites are, which SpaceX is going to have to launch many thousands of every year even once their constellation is complete, just to replace the EOL ones. If you were comparing descriptions of Loon to Starlink before either had actually been done, I suspect Loon might have sounded more practical. Do you think Starlink is a "buzz" project as well? I suppose it isn't complete and we don't actually know for sure if it will be profitable, so maybe it is. Anyway, I give props to the Loon people for making an interesting idea work in the real world, albeit not profitably.

      1. ThatOne Silver badge

        Re: Why am I not surprised?

        > The system worked

        I don't deny that, it's the cost I'm questioning. And not the cost of building/launching one balloon, but the cost of maintaining at any time a coherent operational grid of balloons.

        .

        > satellites

        Well, satellites tend to stay on their calculated orbit, while balloons are randomly moved around by winds (yes, even in the stratosphere). And since they can't reposition themselves, they would have to be replaced at random, weather-dependent periods. Which mean additional, unscheduled launches and excess, redundant bunches of excess balloons over certain spots. Not very cost-effective, is it.

        .

        > Do you think Starlink is a "buzz" project

        No, Starlink is something which technically is quite under control. My beef with Starlink is quite different, but OT in this case.

        (Didn't downvote you BTW)

    3. Martin an gof Silver badge
      Unhappy

      Re: Why am I not surprised?

      move around on their own randomly

      The "clever" part of Loon, as I understand it, was the little compressor mentioned in the article. Using this to take Helium out of the envelope, compress it for storage and release it back into the envelope later, the system was able to control its buoyancy, In other words, it could ascend and descend at will.

      Combining this ability with knowledge and forecasts of the wind at different altitudes, it was possible to keep a balloon more-or-less on station long-term.

      Better than the "blimps" I was peripherally involved with at Magna in the early 2000s, powered by small motors and batteries, barely buoyant enough for their own weight and couldn't even fly against the draughts present in the shed,

      Still, not cheap and it sort of makes some kind of disappointing sense that the project joins the growing pile of Google Abandonware. Could possibly have been taken up by a government, but likely easier and cheaper to deploy standard mobile networks.

      Disaster relief was also mentioned as a possible use-case I seem to remember - bringing communications networks back to life much more quickly than rebuilding dozens or hundreds of cellular sites. Shame that won't now be possible.

      M.

      1. John Brown (no body) Silver badge

        Re: Why am I not surprised?

        "Disaster relief was also mentioned as a possible use-case I seem to remember - bringing communications networks back to life much more quickly than rebuilding dozens or hundreds of cellular sites. Shame that won't now be possible."

        Project Loon was a good idea for comms in disaster relief areas, but would still take at least a day, probably more, to deploy. Starlink and their ilk will be there on-demand when fully deployed. So not so much of a downside as being made redundant.

        1. Martin an gof Silver badge

          Re: Why am I not surprised?

          But Starlink will always have a fixed capacity and require specific hardware. In the case of an earthquake or a flood which takes out all the communications in a small area, Starlink will get there first only if there is hardware on the ground to take advantage and only be useful until there is so much equipment on the ground that it becomes saturated. I believe Loon was also capable of hoisting radios which could talk to "normal" 3G and 4G devices, which will already be there, and for capacity you just inflate a few more balloons and maybe set up another downlink groundstation.

          Or maybe it was one of the rabid dreams I seem to be having recently...

          M.

          1. richardcox13

            Re: Why am I not surprised?

            In large scale disaster cases, as soon as a runway is available the relief agencies start by flying in the support infrastructure to enable the logistics of the relief effort.

            The first things delivered are likely to be communications etc. to set up a temporary replacement control tower (radios, generators, shelter, radar, ….). A StaLlink[1] base station to provide WiFi/GSM in the local area isn't much of a stretch.

            [1] One of the use cases for StarLink is a community connection, costs and bandwidth shared. Not everyone can afford, or needs, their own dedicated link.

        2. AVR

          Re: Why am I not surprised?

          Capacity shipping stuff into a disaster hit area is a problem already, and unless you're going to spend on keeping a bunch of balloons ready to go there's more time taken ordering some up. A day is very much on the low end of expectations. I don't think you'd get it unless you have supplies in or just upwind of the area before the disaster hits.

  4. IT Poser

    High altitude balloons are great for launching paper airplanes into space.

    Trying to launch an ISP is just plain Loony.

  5. Danny 2 Silver badge

    Burst balloons

    To be fair it worked technically and functionally, just not financially. Who knew that the one billion people without internet access also were dirt poor?

    I still think drone blimps are a tech for the future. What links the drone blimps? Higher drone blimps. It's drone blimps all the way up.

    1. chivo243 Silver badge

      Re: Burst balloons

      A quick google shows plenty of drone based wifi mesh products already out there. Do they scale up?

      1. Mage Silver badge
        Coffee/keyboard

        Re: Do they scale up?

        No, it doesn't.

        The balloon thing is a nice idea for a HAP, more like something out of a novel. When you look at the details it was never going to be viable.

        Musk's LEO satellites are for well off people and only marginally less stupid. It can't scale to a mass market without a silly number of satellites.

        Africa, for instance, has been getting fibre and mobile. Mostly from the Chinese.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: Do they scale up?

          Rural americans will pay for Starlinks capex, but then the same sats will be able to service the dirt poor third world when they pass over it, at zero marginal cost. While the ground terminal is expensive, the high capacity would let one dish serve a heap of people.

          SpaceX could sell the service as cheaply as they like, without losing money.

          I think this has destroyed any dreams of making Loon economic - it would always have operating and capex cost in markets where SpaceX has zero cost.

  6. Gene Cash Silver badge

    Google abandons a project?

    Color me shocked!

    1. ThatOne Silver badge

      Re: Google abandons a project?

      Well, I don't like Google (their business model), but one has to admit that you can only abandon projects when you have some...

      (Had to say it, it's just about intellectual honesty. On the other hand I upvoted you.)

    2. ratfox
      Angel

      Re: Google abandons a project?

      They kept that one a lot longer than other services that had more users. Rule of Cool, I guess.

  7. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Easy to fund stupid ideas

    When you have free cash from not paying taxes that ordinary companies and people pay, which leads to market distortion.

    Free cash to buy up small competitors with fresh innovative ideas and shut them down to protect your monopolies / oligopolies.

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