Some tech for development experts are ready for Loon's last flight

A Loon balloon. Photo by: iLighter / CC BY

Loon, a project by Google’s parent company Alphabet, announced Friday that it is shutting down its efforts to deliver the internet from high-flying balloons.

Some in the development community were quick to say “I told you so,” noting that this effort by Alphabet’s moonshot factory has diverted attention and funding from proven technology and models.

A range of experts working on affordable internet access and other tech for development efforts spoke out against Loon, posting on Twitter that it “sucked the air” out of affordable access discussions and distracted from “more realistic approaches” to connectivity.

Via Twitter.

Organizations working to connect the unconnected can strike a better balance between investing in existing approaches, and considering new technologies, according to John Garrity, an independent consultant to public and private sector organizations working on digital inclusion.

“Moonshot projects in connectivity can be effective in highlighting the challenge before us and spurring organizations and governments into discussing and focusing on the issue of billions of people unable to benefit from internet connectivity,” Garrity said in an email to Devex.

“The problem is when moonshots are viewed as the panacea, and draw resources and attention away from what we know can improve the situation today, which is conducive policy and regulations for market entry, competition and investment with proven technologies and flexible business models.”

Loon is not Google’s only internet access initiative. When Google CEO Sundar Pichai spoke at the World Bank meetings last October, he did not mention the effort. Instead, he focused on Equiano, a subsea cable that will begin in Portugal and stretch to South Africa, with branching units along the way to extend connectivity to African countries.

Still, Loon has drawn far more attention than CSquared, an effort to build fiber optic networks in Africa that started as an initiative within Google in 2011.

“The problem is when moonshots are viewed as the panacea, and draw resources and attention away from what we know can improve the situation today.”

— John Garrity, independent consultant on digital inclusion

Alastair Westgarth, CEO at Loon, which was piloting its technology in Kenya, said his team could not find a way to get the costs low enough to build a sustainable business reaching people at the last mile.

Astro Teller, captain of moonshots at X, Apple’s moonshot factory, pledged $10 million to support nonprofits and businesses focusing on connectivity, internet, entrepreneurship, and education in Kenya in the wake of Loon’s closure.

A key lesson from Loon’s failure is that the business model is as important as the technology itself, said Henri Nyakarundi, an entrepreneur working on internet access, who noted the challenge of low revenue margins on the African continent.

Tech companies working on connectivity in Africa “need to stop developing their own solutions and support or invest in local solutions that have a good understanding of the ecosystem,” he wrote in a LinkedIn post reacting to the Loon news.

Loon is not the only example of Big Tech internet access effort that has failed, said Jim Cashel, author of “The Great Connecting: The Emergence of Global Broadband and how that Changes Everything.”

“Other new technologies have also struggled,” he said, mentioning Aquila, Facebook’s solar-powered internet plane, which was grounded in 2018, as another example.

Cashel said he is cautiously optimistic about Starlink, SpaceX’s effort to deliver broadband internet access from low Earth orbit satellites.

“Unlike the other players, SpaceX hasn't really promoted the objective of linking remote populations in developing countries,” he said.

Cashel said he hopes to see organizations approach Starlink about in-country beta testing, ideally beginning with schools and health clinics.

But Loon may serve as a lesson on the opportunity cost of innovation. Laura Walker McDonald, senior director of insights and impact at the Digital Impact Alliance, said she sees it as a balancing act between experimentation with new innovations that may work and continued investment in proven technologies.

“It’s important to weigh one against the other, acknowledging that there’s an opportunity cost to ‘moonshot’ technologies that don’t pan out,” she said in an email to Devex.

McDonald explained the value of organizations taking a gradual scaling approach, using smaller pilots to test unproven ideas, gathering evidence, and scaling as they learn.  

“I hope that the experience and lessons of the Loon project will be shared openly, which I have to say is not typical practice particularly in privately-developed tech,” she said.

“It’s critical from an ethical and practice improvement perspective that we build evidence of effectiveness, outcomes, and eventually impact for all our interventions, and we have roundly failed to build a solid expectation and practice on that score across digital development and humanitarian technology.”

About the author

  • Catherine Cheney

    Catherine Cheney is a Senior Reporter for Devex. She covers the West Coast of the U.S., focusing on the role of technology, innovation, and philanthropy in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. And she frequently represents Devex as a speaker and moderator. Prior to joining Devex, Catherine earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Yale University, worked as a web producer for POLITICO and reporter for World Politics Review, and helped to launch NationSwell. Catherine has reported domestically and internationally for outlets including The Atlantic and the Washington Post. Catherine also works for the Solutions Journalism Network, a non profit that trains and connects reporters to cover responses to problems.