A little over four years ago, Google started talking about what it called Project Loon–an ambitious plan to deploy balloons roughly 11 miles up to create an aerial wireless network. The balloons are positioned in wind layers based on NOAA data and float above target areas. Signals travel via LTE from one balloon to another until they reach a base station; connection to the balloons themselves is handled via specific antennas Google installs.
The name itself reflects how far-out (or far up) the idea was, but there was a solid concept behind the crazy network. In first-world nations with advanced infrastructure, the cost of connecting an area–even if you have to do a last mile fiber pull–is far lower than the physical cost of all of the infrastructure the fiber line or copper wire is attached to. In much of the world, however, this infrastructure either never existed in the first place or was destroyed in conflicts or by scavengers.
Just as cellular phones have brought the internet to millions of people in Asia and Africa who will likely never own a conventional desktop or laptop, Google was looking for ideas it could use to provide internet access over even greater distances than those provided by a conventional cell tower. Project Loon was transferred to Alphabet when Google created that holding corporation, and it previously deployed the technology in Indonesia and Sri Lanka to serve communities in both nations.
Google’s Project Loon balloons being inflated.
The FCC announced it has granted Google permission to deploy 30 balloons over Puerto Rico to provide emergency LTE service in that US territory, where an estimated 83 percent of cellular towers remain offline nearly three weeks after Hurricane Maria struck the island. The same set of balloons will also provide emergency LTE connectivity to the US Virgin Islands, which were also struck by Maria earlier this year.
“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. “That’s why we need to take innovative approaches to help restore connectivity on the island. Project Loon is one such approach.”
Much of Puerto Rico is still without electricity, clean water, or cellular service. But it’s not clear how quickly Project Loon will be able to deploy over the island. Alphabet has been testing the technology in Peru, but Google will still need a telecom partner to deploy its service. This is honestly a bit unclear; comments by Puerto Rico’s governor and from other sources state Google has previously been testing Project Loon in Puerto Rico, but apparently those tests didn’t include a formal partnership with a telecom operator.
The FCC has granted Google a license to operate the Loon-y network through April of 2018.
Feature image by ilitephoto, Flickr