The FCC has given approval for Google parent company, Alphabet, to help Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands regain wireless service. The company will attempt to enable LTE connectivity using its high-flying Project Loon balloons.
Hurricane Maria hit the islands last month, destroying access to basic supplies like food and running water. A report from this week says that 83% of people still lack cell reception.
“More than two weeks after Hurricane Maria struck, millions of Puerto Ricans are still without access to much-needed communications services,” said FCC Chairman Ajit Pai. “That’s why we need to take innovative approaches to help restore connectivity on the island.”
Loon was developed by X, part of Alphabet’s innovation group. It was able to help Peru earlier this year, amidst significant flooding and hopes to replicate this success. Yet before it proceeds with its plans in Puerto Rico, Loon needs to find a carrier network to partner with. Loon had already been working with Telefonica in Peru, which sped up the process.
Libby Leahy, a company spokesperson, provided us with the following statement. “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.”
The Loon project consists of a network of high altitude balloons that rise like weather balloons to a height above 60,000 feet. Loon balloons are designed to “ride the wind” to get to a destination and are super-pressurized to withstand for over 100 days in the stratosphere.
Signals are transmitted directly to LTE-enabled devices and are routed through a local carrier, and the balloons are raised and lowered to an altitude with winds blowing in the desired direction.
Tesla is also working on efforts to help Puerto Rico.
Hundreds of Tesla Powerwall battery systems are already in Puerto Rico and Tesla employees are in the territory helping with installation and training for maintenance.
Tesla and Google are joining an effort to rebuild the island’s infrastructure that also includes Facebook, which committed to send its connectivity staff to the island to help in recovery and reconstruction.