Loon bolsters connectivity credentials with advisory board signings

Alphabet’s latest X graduate Loon has added industry heavyweights to its advisory board as the business searches for commercial credibility in the world of connectivity.

As the ludicrous dream starts to become a reality, Loon has added three industry veterans to its ranks. Former McCaw Communications CEO Craig McCaw, Evernote CEO Ian Small and Verizon EVP Global Media & New Business Marni Walden will all be added to the roster, bringing with them years of experience and, perhaps more importantly, connections in the telco space.

“As Loon transitions to a commercial business and looks to partner with MNOs worldwide, we’re adding some serious expertise to our ranks with a new Advisory Board that brings together top wireless innovators with decades of experience in the industry,” Loon CEO Alastair Westgarth wrote in a blog post.

For those who have missed out on this blue-sky thinking idea, Loon is Alphabet’s latest attempt to branch into the connectivity segment. Previous efforts might have been a flop, just have a look at the success brought through Google Fiber, but this is something slightly different; its attempting to create a new segment rather than steal business from established players.

By floating these massive balloons 18-23km above the earth for periods of up to 100 days, the Loon team claims each balloon can create a connectivity cone with coverage to a ground area 80km in diameter. The balloons are fitted with a broad-coverage LTE base station and a high-speed directional link used to connect between balloons and back down to the internet infrastructure on the ground.

In an industry which has constantly struggled to bridge the digital divide due to the expense of deploying infrastructure, this is a genuinely innovative approach to providing connectivity. It helps lessen the financial pressures of delivering the internet, adding to the connectivity mix.

Back in November at AfricaCom, Westgarth gave some insight into the business on the main conference stage. At the time he announced the beginning of a commercial relationship with Telkom Kenya, as well as outlining the wider ambitions of the business. This is an idea which has big commercial potential, most of which will be in the developing markets. These are after all areas where ARPU is low and deployment is staggered. It would appear to be the perfect mix for Loon’s proposal to bring the internet to the masses.

These appointments however perhaps suggest Loon is not a firm satisfied with the developing markets alone. These are three US executives who have considerable experience in the domestic market. Of course, there will be connections in the international space with telcos in the developing nations, but perhaps Loon has spotted an opportunity in the US. These executives would certainly help pave the way for conversations across the homeland.

Of course, this is just a theory and the PR team have been, just as you would expect, pretty evasive when asked the question. However, the digital divide is certainly a challenge in the US. For those who are lucky enough to live in the cities, they’ll have no concept of connectivity challenges, but the vast expanses and challenging terrain of the US open up numerous, huge not-spots, despite what the telcos actually tell you.

Loon has been touted as an innovation for the developing markets but seeing as the US telcos are clueless as how to solve the domestic digital divide, why not. These executives will certainly know the right people in the right places.

Alphabet’s blue sky thinkers pen first Loon deal in Kenya

The Loon team have signed its first commercial deal with Telkom Kenya to deploy a pilot 4G network in suburban and rural areas of the country.

Having dropped the ‘Project’ part of the name, the Loon team now operates as an independent company within the Alphabet business, and does not look that ridiculous any more. Why didn’t anyone else figure out balloons would be an efficient means to deliver connectivity to some of the world’s more difficult not spots.

“As Loon, our mission is to connect people everywhere by inventing and integrating audacious technologies,” said Alastair Westgarth, CEO of Loon. “We couldn’t be more excited to start our journey in Kenya, and we look forward to working with mobile network partners worldwide to deliver on the promise of Loon.”

The deal with Telkom Kenya will kick off in 2019, and is being touted by the team as an alternative to the expensive job of building ground-based infrastructure. The balloons will be 60,000 feet in the air, on the edge of space, focusing on the central regions of Kenya which have been previously difficult to service, due to mountainous and inaccessible terrain. The exact coverage areas will be determined in the coming months, and subject to the requisite regulatory approvals.

“Telkom is focused on bringing innovative products and solutions to the Kenyan market,” said Telkom Kenya CEO Aldo Mareuse. “With this association with Loon, we will be partnering with a pioneer in the use of high altitude balloons to provide LTE coverage across larger areas in Kenya. We will work very hard with Loon, to deliver the first commercial mobile service, as quickly as possible, using Loon’s balloon-powered Internet in Africa.”

Alphabet is a company which certainly does specialise in absurd ideas, though this is one of the few moon-shots which looks to have genuine potential in the near future. Although it has been used to help provide connectivity in regions struck by natural disasters, this is one of the first signs of the long-term and sustainable presence of Loon. For telcos who are considering satellite as a means to tackle the rural not spots, Loon could certainly provide a more cost and time effective means to meet demand.

Back in October, Alphabet was given permission to use 30 experimental balloons to provide connectivity to Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands, which have been ravaged by Hurricanes Irma and Maria, leaving around 90% of the territories without coverage. While temporary coverage following natural disasters will be a continued use case for Loon, executives will certainly be comforted they don’t have to sit around and wait for a natural disaster to hit.

Alphabet is one of the internet giants which has been consistently searching for ways to diversify the business model, though this is not the first time connectivity was a major play. US telcos might have been relieved to see the end of the Google Fibre experiment, though this venture looks to be far more sustainable for Alphabet. Should the Telkom Kenya project be successful, Loon will start to attract interest around the world.

Another CEO climbs aboard the Google Fiber merry-go-round

Alphabet has named Dinesh Jain as the latest CEO of the Access business unit, the third boss in a little over a year.

Alphabet’s Access business unit, which features Google Fiber and the acquired Webpass, was certainly one which caught the attention of the US telcos are a potential threat at the beginning but this has amounted to very little so far. Perhaps three CEOs in a period of 16 months is a perfect example of this bundling business unit.

“We’re excited to announce that Access has a new leader to move the Google Fiber and Webpass businesses forward,” a statement on the Google Fiber blog reads. “Dinesh (Dinni) Jain, an accomplished veteran of the U.S. and European cable and telecommunications industries – most recently as Chief Operating Officer at Time Warner Cable – starts as CEO of Access today.”

Taking over from Gregory McCray, who left the business in July 2017, who took over from Craig Barratt after he left in October 2016, Jain has the complicated task of figuring out the future of Access. The division has a minor but notable presence throughout the US, Google Fiber is in twelve metropolitan areas while Webpass has eight, but so far it has looked nothing more than an expensive play thing.

Perhaps the only saving grace for Jain is the openness to experiment in new areas. Losing a couple of hundred million here and there doesn’t seem to be a problem for the Alphabet execs just as long as every avenue is explored. The Googlers have shown on numerous occasions they are willing to fund an unprofitable idea if there is light at the end of the tunnel, Google Maps is an excellent example, but this one might such up a lot of cash until that glimmer is found.

Alphabet started out with some very big ideas for the connectivity world but found out that competing with the big boys was going to be a difficult task. Playing in the physical world of connectivity is an expensive and time consuming game, and it is very different from Alphabet’s core competencies. We get the impression this was under-appreciated at first, but with this appointment perhaps Alphabet is showing it is ready to dig its heels in and persist until there are no other options left.

It is unclear for the moment as to whether the team will continue down the fixed wireless path or fibre ambitions will be remembered, but there will be a few in the US who will welcome this news. A notable proportion of US citizens only have access to one connectivity provider in the US so any additional competition would be welcomed.

We’ve also mentioned before that a company with the brand reputation of Google could shake things up considerably in the US. US citizens like Google more than the likes of AT&T or Verizon, should Access be able to sort itself out, it might be able to cause some damage. Perhaps this is what is fuelling the desires of the Alphabet executives.

Google’s Eric Schmidt is stepping down as Executive Chairman

One of the most recognizable names in the technology industry will be taking more a backseat role at Google, as Eric Schmidt steps down as Executive Chairman.

Schmidt will remain in place until the next general meeting on 18 January, though his new position will be as a technical advisor to the company while continuing to serve on its board. Details on why Schmidt will be moving away from the bright lights are thin for the moment, but perhaps it is just time for a bit of relaxation for man who was probably one of the busiest Googler’s in recent years.

“Since 2001, Eric has provided us with business and engineering expertise and a clear vision about the future of technology,” said Larry Page, CEO of Alphabet.

“Continuing his 17 years of service to the company, he’ll now be helping us as a technical advisor on science and technology issues. I’m incredibly excited about the progress our companies are making, and about the strong leaders who are driving that innovation.”

Schmidt, who Forbes ranked Schmidt as the 119th-richest person in the world in 2017, served as the CEO of Google from 2001 to 2011, a period which laid down the foundations for Google’s dominance today. Schmidt handed over control of Google in 2011 to founder Larry Page, but continued as Executive Chairman as the company restructured to form Alphabet.

“Larry (Page), Sergey (Binn), Sundar (Pichai) and I all believe that the time is right in Alphabet’s evolution for this transition. The Alphabet structure is working well, and Google and the Other Bets are thriving,” said Schmidt. “In recent years, I’ve been spending a lot of my time on science and technology issues, and philanthropy, and I plan to expand that work.”

A new Executive Chairman will be announced in January, and perhaps there will be a bit more detail on what Schmidt’s role will actually be. Considering the growing influence of the ‘Other bets’ business unit in Google, this might not be the last time you hear from the man.