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Alphabet hires new leader for internet balloon project Loon

Wednesday, August 24, 2016 - 07:58

[SAN FRANCISCO] Project Loon, Google's high-profile effort to put broadband-emitting balloons into the stratosphere over remote parts of the world, is getting a new leader with practical industry experience.

X, the research division of Google parent company Alphabet Inc, said Tuesday it hired  Tom Moore, co-founder of satellite- based broadband service provider WildBlue Communications Inc.

He starts as a vice-president at X and general manager of Project Loon in mid-September.

Mike Cassidy, a well-known Silicon Valley entrepreneur who has run Loon since early 2012, will remain at the company's X lab to develop new research projects.

The balloon effort at Google has been one of the few to show continued progress inside X, the research lab responsible for the poorly reviewed internet-connected spectacles, Glass, and Google's driverless car division, which has recently suffered from the departure of several leaders.

X has been testing its balloons around the world since 2013, partnering with wireless operators like Vodafone NZ in New Zealand, Telstra in Australia and Telefonica in South America to provide internet access in rural and mountainous areas that aren't served by traditional terrestrial networks.

The move to bring in an industry veteran with commercial experience mirrors other efforts at Alphabet to turn ambitious, risky research projects into profitable businesses.

Last year, the company hired John Krafcik, the former head of Hyundai Motor America, to lead its car project into that next stage. Verily, a health care research project, has signed commercial partnership deals with big companies in that industry. Google Fiber, which spent years burying high-speed fiber-optic internet cables beneath Kansas City and other US cities, recently shifted to deploy its service with cheaper wireless technology.

"Tom's valuable industry experience will help launch us into the commercial stage," Astro Teller, head of X, said in a statement. "We're looking forward to working with telcos around the world to integrate Loon with their networks." Moore co-founded WildBlue in 1998 to use satellites to serve consumers and small businesses without access to land- based internet services.

In 2009, it was acquired by satellite communications provider ViaSat Inc, where Mr Moore has since worked as a senior vice-president overseeing consumer, enterprise and mobility businesses as well as mergers and acquisitions and strategic initiatives.

That business experience will be needed at Loon, which faces big challenges. Providing internet connectivity to rural and developing markets may mean fewer customers, or customers with less money to spend on such services. And wireless carriers were initially cautious about working with Loon because they saw it as a potential rival. 

Mr Moore was traveling and could not be reached for comment. In a statement, he said, "Billions of people still lack affordable, reliable access to the educational, cultural, and economic opportunities of the Internet, largely due to the costs and challenges of connecting rural and remote parts of the globe. The world needs fresh approaches like Project Loon, which can help overcome terrestrial obstacles like mountains and jungles, and has made far more progress than anyone would have expected."

X said on Tuesday that its balloons have traveled more than 17 million km, with many staying airborne for more than 100 days.

Software developed by Loon guides the balloons into favorable winds, which allows them to remain over land for longer and transmit broadband internet access directly to mobile phone handsets below. A test site in Puerto Rico is capable of launching a balloon every 30 minutes, it added.

An X spokeswoman declined to say when Alphabet might begin offering balloon-based internet service but said it is currently in discussions with telecommunications companies.

Last year, Loon signed a deal to test its internet-beaming balloons with Indonesia's three largest wireless carriers. The X spokeswoman said those tests have not started yet, but the parties still plan to pursue them. 

BLOOMBERG