Google balloons set to bring internet to Puerto Rico

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

Google's parent company Alphabet is working to bring emergency connectivity to Puerto Rico using high altitude balloons.

Loon, part of a series of futuristic projects out of Alphabet's "X" laboratory, was originally created to provide internet coverage in under-developed rural areas. By contrast, Google had already been testing in Peru when floods hit, so it was able to partner with Telefonica to get its system up and running in weeks.

The next step for Alphabet X is to partner with a telecommunications service to bring the experimental service directly to the region, reports Engadget.

In late September, Tesla said it was sending hundreds of batteries that can store power generated by solar panels to Puerto Rico to provide emergency help in the wake of Hurricane Maria. The company has until April 4, 2018 to fly the balloons.

"More than two weeks after Hurricane Maria struck, millions of Puerto Ricans are still without access to much-needed communications services", FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said in a statement on Saturday. In almost all counties in Puerto Rico, more than 75 percent of cell sites are not working, and "22 out of the 78 counties in Puerto Rico have 100 percent of their cell sites out of service". This worked for emergency communications in Peru following a recent natural disaster there.

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

While Hurricanes Maria and Irma have left Puerto Rico nearly entirely without cell coverage, help may be on the way in the form of 30 balloons. Project Loon is one such approach. Project Loon obtained consent agreements to use land mobile radio (LMR) radio spectrum in the 900 MHz band from existing carriers operating within Puerto Rico. The island, home to almost 3.5 million people, remains crippled by the Category 4 storm that struck last month, which disabled more than 90 percent of Puerto Rico's cell towers and left its communications infrastructure in shambles.

According to Wired, the company's "Project Loon" initiative will help replace thousands of cellular data towers that were knocked out of service on the Caribbean island during the recent hurricane. "We've been making solid progress on this next step and would like to thank everyone who's been lending a hand".

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