Balloon-powered Internet Reaches Tens of Thousands in Hurricane-Hit Puerto Rico

X redesigns essential cell tower components by making them light and durable enough to be carried by a balloon 20 km up in the stratosphere. (All photos courtesy of Project Loon)

Two weeks after Hurricane Irma slammed into the Caribbean islands, Maria, a category 4 hurricane, devastated Puerto Rico on September 20th, and knocked out the island’s cell phone towers and electrical grid. The destruction left 3.4 million people without power or cellphone reception. As several companies scramble to repair the infrastructure, some help in communication technology has come from above–from huge jellyfish-like balloons, that ride stratospheric winds, 20 km above the Earth’s surface. (about 13 miles; 66,000 feet)

These tennis court sized balloons are serving as floating cell phone towers, as they carry portable cell tower components. When high speed internet is transmitted up to the nearest balloon from a telecommunications partner on the ground, transceivers on the balloons, transmit connectivity from ground stations, across balloons, and back down to users’ LTE phones—allowing basic access to the Internet and text messaging service.

The high-altitude balloons are part of Project Loon that was set up in 2013 by Google’s parent company, Alphabet. The company hopes to deliver internet connectivity to rural and remote areas around the world by creating a network of stratospheric balloons in those regions to serve as cell phone towers. Loon balloons sail on winds in the stratosphere, to extend the reach of a telecommunication company’s networks into areas that are unconnected. While still in its infancy, the project is managed by Alphabet’s division X –devoted to futuristic technology—and has found appropriate use in disaster zones, for the second time.

A Loon balloon getting ready to take flight to Puerto Rico from the launch site in Nevada (Project Loon)

“Over the last week, Project Loon has delivered basic Internet connectivity to tens of thousands of people in Puerto Rico,” says an October 27th tweet by “The Team at X.”

According to Alphabet spokeswoman Libby Leahy, the Federal Communications Commission granted an experimental license (pdf) on October 7th, to send 30 balloons for up to six months, to serve hard-hit areas in Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands.

“This is the first time we have used our new machine learning powered algorithms to keep balloons clustered over Puerto Rico, so we’re still learning how best to do this. As we get more familiar with the constantly shifting winds in this region, we hope to keep the balloons over areas where connectivity is needed for as long as possible,” says Alastair Westgarth, head of Project Loon, in a blog post.

Westgarth admits that Project Loon is still an experimental technology and the team is not quite sure how well it will work.

Loon’s first pilot test in New Zealand in 2013 (Project Loon)

AT&T and T-Mobile are collaborating with Alphabet’s balloon-powered connectivity in Puerto Rico and providing their customers who have LTE-enabled devices, with basic Internet access and texting. In addition, satellite company SES Networks and cable provider Liberty Cablevision also provided the ground infrastructure, so the balloons could get Internet connectivity.   The team works closely with aviation authorities and air traffic controllers to fly the balloons from Alphabet’s launch site in Nevada to Puerto Rico.

Though this is the second time that Project Loon has been launched to restore basic communication, the venture in Puerto Rico is of paramount importance, as the company had not carried out any connectivity experiments with telecom partners there. “We’ve never deployed Project Loon connectivity from scratch at such a rapid pace,” says Westgarth.

A Loon balloon on its way to Puerto Rico from Nevada (Project Loon)

The company’s first real experience to bring digital connections in a disaster-struck region was in May, when Peru was battered by extreme rains and flooding. Then Project Loon deployed the balloons for the first time; but, the company had already been experimenting with telecommunications partner Telefonica in Peru.

Original navigational model shows rings of balloons sailed around the globe. As one balloon drifted out of range of a specific region, another would move in to take its place. (Project Loon)

In Puerto Rico, which is 9,104 square kilometers, theoretically, two to three balloons could cover the island, as each balloon has a coverage area of 5,000 square kilometers. However, navigating these balloons on wind currents in the stratosphere is not easy, and it’s not an exact science. Also, at any given time, few balloons could be off course, so in practice many more balloons are needed for constant and reliable coverage.

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