The Federal Communications Commission yesterday granted Alphabet-owned Project Loon an experimental license to operate in Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands for the purpose of helping the islands regain connectivity. The license extends from October 6th until April 4th, 2018, and it was granted to Ben Wojtowicz, a software engineer and member of Alphabet’s X lab who works on Project Loon.
The helium balloons are expected to deliver emergency LTE cellular reception to allow residents and local governments to contact friends and family, coordinate relief and restoration efforts, and reestablish communication with the outside world. It’s unclear to what extent Loon will cover Puerto Rico or parts of the Virgin Islands, or how many balloons the team plans to deploy.
“The purpose of the [Special Temporary Authority] is to support licensed mobile carriers’ restoration of limited communications capability in areas of Puerto Rico and the United States Virgin Islands affected by Hurricanes Irma and Maria,” the license reads.
Just last week, the Loon team said it was looking into helping Puerto Rico, still devastated by Hurricane Maria, regain connectivity. The island, home to nearly 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. In a report issued yesterday, the FCC revealed that 83 percent of cell towers on the island are still down, with the US Virgin Islands in a similar state.
Loon is one of Google’s original “moonshot efforts designed to bring connectivity to remote areas of the world and locales struggling in the aftermath of natural disaster. It appears to be a perfect fit for helping Puerto Rico get back online. Helping speed up the process is the Loon team’s existing involvement with telecommunications provider Telefonica on the island.
In a statement given to Engadget, a spokesperson for Alphabet’s X lab said the team needs to work with a partner network of a local telecom, like Telefonica, to make it all work. “To deliver signal to people’s devices, Loon needs be integrated with a telco partner’s network — the balloons can’t do it alone,” the spokesperson explains. “We’ve been making solid progress on this next step and would like to thank everyone who’s been lending a hand.” This isn’t Loon’s first deployment; the team has been expanded its testing over the years to include initiatives in Brazil, France, Indonesia, New Zealand, and Sri Lanka, among others.