Balloons to provide Puerto Rico with telephone service

Google's Project Loon uses balloons to send mobile phone signals to remote areas
Google via AFP

"We're grateful for the support of the FCC and the Puerto Rican authorities as we work hard to see if it's possible to use Loon balloons to bring emergency connectivity to the island during this time of need", said Libby Leahy, a spokesperson for Alphabet X. Google calls it "Project Loon" and has been running worldwide trials in areas with challenging geographies and limited fiber networks.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) approved an "experimental license" on Friday for X's parent company Alphabet to fly their balloons over Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands for up to six months.

"That's why we need to take innovative approaches to help restore connectivity on the island".

Alphabet's Project Loon was unveiled in 2013 with the ambitious goal of bringing "balloon-powered Internet [to] everyone" on Earth. In the case of Peru, Project Loon was already in the middle of tests with Telefonica in the country when disaster struck.

Project Loon's wireless network also needs the cooperation of the wireless carriers on the island to work, because those calls still need the cellular network to function to provide connections to the wider telephone network.

According to the FCC, 83 percent of Puerto Rico's cell sites remain inoperable since Hurricane Maria - a category 4 storm - devastated the island.

The exact number of balloons that will be deployed over Puerto Rico is still unclear, as they must first establish an on-the-ground base from which to transmit to the balloons. Essentially, the project is launching giant balloons that float in the stratosphere, beaming down telecommunication signals.

The project has an existing track record in Peru, where the company's Internet-providing balloons helped establish emergency communications after unrelenting rains and floods disabled areas of the country back in March.

The technology was recently used in the aftermath of flooding in Peru. "Terrestrial communications infrastructure was severely impacted in many communities, leaving people unable to communicate". "Using this data, our software algorithms are able to determine which altitude has a wind pattern that gives us the best chance of keeping our balloons close to the areas where we want them", Project Loon said at the time.

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