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Alphabet internet balloons could talk to your phone in 2019

Project Loon gets more down to earth with plans to graduate from "moonshot" research idea to a real business. It worked during a test in Peru.

Project Loon balloon soars over the mountains.

Project Loon balloon soars over the mountains.


In 2019, you may check your email with the help of a balloon 12 miles up in the sky.

Project Loon, from Google parent company Alphabet, uses high-altitude solar-powered balloons instead of the usual land-based cell towers to provide your phone's wireless connection to the network. It began as a somewhat bizarre project from the company's X "moonshot" group, but now Google has tested it in Peru and expects to launch it as a real business.

"We believe in the next couple year we will be flying in a commercial context," said Loon chief Alastair Westgarth in an interview with Mobile World Live. The plan is to be profitable, not one of Alphabet's many other projects reliant on funding supplied by Google's immense online advertising business. "We intend for it to be a profitable business and a large business," Westgarth said.

In the Peru test this year, the Loon team partnered with carrier Telefonica to supply net access. Using 20 to 30 balloons, the Loon project covered an area the size of Switzerland to help improve net access during Peru flooding, Westgarth said.

Loon has the potential to improve internet access over swaths of land where it's tough to provide it  today. But even if you use it in 2019, you probably won't know. That's because the Loon team plans to offer it in partnership with carriers, helping them improve their coverage but not elbowing in on their businesses. Google has spoken to dozens of mobile network operators, Westgarth said.

Loon balloons stay more or less in the same place by changing altitude, taking advantage of differing wind directions to steer. It's not the only way tech giants are rethinking internet access. Facebook is working on a project called Aquila that uses unmanned airplanes to provide data connections.