What the cancellation of Google’s Project Loon means for broadband

Google's Project Loon was a brave – if ultimately doomed – attempt to show how broadband can be distributed from the skies

Tuesday, 9 March, 2021

Google has a decidedly mixed pedigree when it comes to new technologies and projects.

For every Gmail, there’s a Google+. For every Google Docs, there’s a QuickOffice. And for every Chrome or Android, there’s an Allo or Answers.

Admittedly, some schemes were simply ahead of their time – the pioneering but ultimately unsuccessful Google Glass VR project, or the pre-Uber Google Ride Finder.

In future years, Google’s Project Loon scheme may be viewed with the same respect as Glass currently is. Or it might be derided as another Californian pipe dream.

Even so, while most Google projects quietly die without attracting much attention, Google’s Project Loon has received extensive coverage since its cancellation. And rightly so.

Genius or Loon-acy?

Google’s Project Loon was an attempt to use high-altitude hot air balloons to distribute wireless broadband across remote or sparsely-populated parts of the world.

On first reading, that sounds like madness. But in reality, it was an ingenious attempt at improving (often chronically slow) download speeds outside major metropolitan areas.

Rather than the traditional method of burning fuel to stay in the air, Loon balloons were filled with helium and powered by a mixture of solar cells and a reserve battery pack.

Capable of staying airborne for over 300 days, these stratospheric balloons were being tested as far back as 2013.

They successfully provided cellular connectivity to areas with no ground infrastructure. And while 1Mbps download speeds are unremarkable, they’re better than nothing.

Although Google did much of its testing in New Zealand, its primary focus was always on developing nations where landlines and fibre cabling are unaffordable or simply unavailable.

Stick a pin in it

Sadly for Google, the per-consumer costs of reaching the last billion people on Earth without internet access were too high to justify spiralling costs.

There are also plenty of rival firms attempting to provide airborne data communications. And some achieved far less before being cancelled, like Facebook’s drone-based Aquila scheme.

Others have already been commercially released, most notably Elon Musk’s SpaceX Starlink project.

Starlink delivers download speeds of up to 150Mbps, from a fleet of over 1,000 low earth orbit satellites hovering 560km above the ground.

Indeed, satellite broadband isn’t a new concept. It suffers from high latency and relatively high data costs, but it keeps data flowing to places with no other infrastructure.

Starlink latency times are 20-40 milliseconds, but the delivery of ultrafast broadband to locations where even a 4G mobile signal can’t be obtained far outweighs any compromises.

High-speed satellite is a viable – if expensive – option in parts of the UK where terrestrial infrastructure hasn’t permeated, including sparsely-populated regions of Wales and Scotland.

And while Google may have abandoned plans to use long-term unmanned aircraft for broadband delivery, other companies are experimenting with similar technology.

As a result, this is unlikely to be the last time you read the words ‘internet’ and ‘balloon’ in the same sentence.

Neil Cumins author picture


Neil is our resident tech expert. He's written guides on loads of broadband head-scratchers and is determined to solve all your technology problems!