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Google balloons set to bring internet to Puerto Rico

Published Oct 9th, 2017 9:02PM EDT
Puerto Rico cell status
Image: Google

Despite the best efforts of cell companies, the vast majority of Puerto Rico is offline. Internet coverage might seem like a luxury when people are struggling for clean water and power, but communications make moving essential supplies much easier, and enables lost families and friends to find each other.

That’s why the FCC has granted an emergency license to Google parent company Alphabet to deploy 30 balloons over the island, with the intention of providing basic internet service while the conventional cell network is brought back online.

Project Loon is an Alphabet “moonshot” concept that’s been running since 2013. It’s meant to bring internet to remote areas using balloons. Testing is going slowly, but Loon has proven particularly good at restoring communications after a natural disaster. Earlier this year, Loon provided coverage to tens of thousands of people in Peru following major flooding.

The situation in Puerto Rico appears more difficult for Google. For the balloons to work, they need a wireless backhaul, which is provided through a partnership with local cell companies. The 83% of cell towers are still down in Puerto Rico, and the groundwork hasn’t been put in place. 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.

Google didn’t provide a timeframe for when the balloons would be up and running, but the FCC license expires in April 2018, so it’s going to have to be a while before then:

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