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Alphabet subsidiary launching balloons over Kenya to improve mobile phone service

January 7, 2019, 10:00AM EDT

Kenya is big into mobile phones—nine out of 10 people have one. However, the country’s infrastructure does not yet reflect its residents' passion for mobile. The connectivity is only good in major cities; in other parts of the country, there is still a lot to be achieved. Telkom Kenya, together with Alphabet subsidiary Loon, is about to deploy a high-flying solution to bridge those infrastructure gaps in the form of high-altitude balloons.

“High-altitude balloons are actually a very reasonable way to approach this problem,” Sal Candido tells IEEE Spectrum, Loon’s head of engineering. “They’re high, they cover a lot of ground, and there are no obstacles.”

What makes the balloon network unique is that the network nodes are in constant motion as the balloons drift around. They do not require any ground-based infrastructure—they can stay in the air until they are replaced.

As connectivity improves, it presents an opportunity for decentralised banking, e.g. bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, to rival the current preferred method of phone-based banking. As many people in rural zones still don’t have access to traditional banking, phone-based financing is the norm. Transactions through e-banking platforms, such as M-Pesa, represented almost half of Kenyan GDP in 2017.

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