Alphabet’s Internet balloons will try to restore cell service in Puerto Rico


Enlarge / Project Loon balloons.

Alphabet

The Alphabet division that’s building a balloon-powered Internet service has obtained an experimental license “to help provide emergency cellular service in Puerto Rico,” the Federal Communications Commission announced Saturday. But it’s not clear when—or if—the company will be able to provide service to the hurricane-damaged island, as the FCC license is just one step in the process.

Alphabet’s Project Loon was unveiled in 2013 with the ambitious goal of bringing “balloon-powered Internet [to] everyone” on Earth. Alphabet has steadily improved the technology and launched pilot projects, and it will now try to connect Puerto Ricans who are still recovering from the massive damage caused by Hurricane Maria.

“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.

Nearly 82 percent of cell sites in Puerto Rico and 57 percent in the US Virgin Islands are out of service, the FCC said in its daily damage report yesterday. In nearly 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.” Large percentages of residents are also without cable or wireline service.

Alphabet still needs help

Alphabet hasn’t announced a schedule for providing service in Puerto Rico, and the company says it is still determining whether it will be able to help.

“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,” an Alphabet spokesperson told Ars today.

Project Loon must be integrated with the network of a cellular company in order to provide service, and Alphabet is “making solid progress on this next step,” the spokesperson said. Project Loon is part of Alphabet’s X division, formerly known as “Google X.”

Pai urged carriers to work with Alphabet on the project. “[Project Loon] could help provide the people of Puerto Rico with access to cellular service to connect with loved ones and access life-saving information,” Pai said. “I’m glad the FCC was able to grant this experimental license with dispatch and I urge wireless carriers to cooperate with Project Loon to maximize this effort’s chances of success.”

Loon provided emergency service in Peru

Earlier this year, Project Loon was used to provide basic Internet service to tens of thousands of people in Peru, which was in a state of emergency after extreme rain and flooding.

“Loon balloons float 20km up in the stratosphere and so have the potential to extend connectivity to where it’s needed regardless of what’s happening below,” Project Loon head Alastair Westgarth wrote at the time.

But Project Loon was already working with a carrier in Peru before providing emergency service. In Puerto Rico, there is more work to do.

“We were able to connect people in Peru quickly earlier this year because we were already working closely with Telefonica on some testing; in [Puerto Rico], things are a little more complicated because we’re starting from scratch,” Alphabet told Ars.

Sprint said that it is talking to Alphabet about possibly integrating with Loon in Puerto Rico, The Wall Street Journal wrote. Meanwhile, “AT&T has started using satellite links to carry millions of phone calls and text messages from clusters of temporary cellular radios to the mainland,” a temporary fix while the carrier works on fixing its network, the report said.

Separately, the FCC last week said it would let carriers use up to $77 million from the Universal Service Fund to restore service in Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands.

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