Company / division: Loon
Alphabet’s Project Loon, which uses high-altitude balloons to deploy internet connectivity to areas underserved by more traditional methods, has received rapid FCC approval to deploy its technology in Puerto Rico, where cellular service continues to be widely disrupted after the recent hurricane. Project Loon has relatively few real-world deployments out there despite testing for years, but this seems like a fantastic application for the technology if it can work out some of the kinks, and if it can deploy much more quickly than it has elsewhere. Interestingly, Facebook’s connectivity group has also worked on some airborne technologies for deployment in disaster zones, including a “Tether-tenna” it described at F8 earlier this year. Given that neither company’s connectivity efforts has had a massive impact yet, perhaps it’s best deployed in these scenarios, where the flexibility it offers is arguably a better fit than land-based approaches typically used by traditional cellular carriers in these situations.
Given the brevity of Moore’s tenure at Loon, it looks like things didn’t turn out so well, which is a bit surprising given he was thought to be the kind of business brain who would align well with Alphabet’s new, more focused strategy. It’s also a bit surprising because Loon had recently announced that it was making progress in streamlining its technology and therefore getting closer to the point where it might make money. In the end, Moore seems to be either another executive who didn’t jive with the way Alphabet is being run now, or perhaps merely had conflicts with other managers around him.
I think the framing here is exactly right – this is part of the broader crackdown at Alphabet on some of its longer-term and less financially viable projects. The new approach – targeting balloons at specific regions rather than trying to blanket the globe – always seemed like the more obvious way to go, but of course balloons are inherently hard to navigate, so I’m intrigued to know how they will manage that. Two big questions remain: firstly, whether Internet access delivered from the sky can ever be really good (see existing satellite-based Internet access, which tends to be slow and bandwidth limited), and whether Alphabet should be in the access business at all (see also yesterday’s Google Fiber item). At least it sounds like this particular project might generate revenues sooner rather than later (and eventually even profits!) but it’s still not clear that it’s going to benefit the core Google business much.