Alphabet balloon floats over icy landscape

Alphabet’s Project Loon to provide emergency mobile coverage to Puerto Rico

Image credit: Alphabet's Moonshot Laboratory/X

The US Federal Communications Commission has given approval for Alphabet Inc to begin providing energy mobile phone coverage to Puerto Rico, through Project Loon.

After Hurricane Maria hit the region on September 20, millions of Puerto Ricans have been suffering from crippled infrastructure, with access to food, electricity, clean water and mobile signal severely limited since. 83 per cent of mobile sites are out of service, the FCC reports, and more than 90 per cent of its mobile towers are inoperable.

Since then, telecommunications companies have been deploying temporary mobile sites and US FCC Chairman Ajit Pai announced the formation of a Hurricane Recovery Task Force.

Among other actions, the FCC has awarded Alphabet – Google’s parent company – an experimental license to operate in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands in order to help them regain connectivity. This license gives Alphabet until April 2018 to roll out the project.

Its purpose is to “support licensed mobile carriers’ restoration of limited communications capability in areas of Puerto Rico and the [US] Virgin Islands affected by Hurricanes Irma and Maria”.

Project Loon was first announced in 2013. Developed at Alphabet’s “Moonshot Factory” (also known as "Google X", or simply "X"), its aim is to use high-altitude balloons, much like weather balloons, to provide internet services in regions of limited connectivity. These balloons are solar powered and can remain adrift for up to 100 days in the stratosphere, creating an aerial wireless network providing speeds of up to 4G.

Project Loon balloons have already been deployed in France, Indonesia, New Zealand, Brazil and other countries.

“More than two weeks after Hurricane Maria struck, millions of Puerto Ricans are still without access to much-needed communications services,” Pai wrote in a statement.

“That’s why we need to take innovative approaches to help restore connectivity on the island. Project Loon is one such approach.”

It is not yet known how many balloons will be deployed, where they will be deployed or when the effort will begin. Alphabet has qualified that the restoration of connectivity to the region must be a joint effort: Project Loon partnered with Telefonica in order to help provide connectivity following flooding and mudslides in Peru in May 2017.

“To deliver signal to people’s devices, Loon needs to be integrated with a telco partner’s network, the balloons can’t do it alone,” an Alphabet spokesperson told Engadget. “We’ve been making solid progress on this next step and would like to thank everyone who’s been lending a hand.”

Meanwhile, SpaceX and Tesla founder Elon Musk has been in talks with Puerto Rico representatives and recently announced that Tesla would be sending additional batteries and battery installers to the country, in order to help restore power to the country. Already, hundreds of Tesla batteries have been shipped to Puerto Rico following the disaster. Facebook has joined the disaster response, having sent a connectivity team to the island to deliver energy telecommunications assistance.

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