Alphabet's 'Project Loon' balloons will restore cell service to large parts of Puerto Rico
Earlier this year when Puerto Rico was hit by storms and flooding, Google’s parent company, Alphabet, could use their Project Loon LTE capable weather balloons to provide cellular service to some severely affected areas. Now it is two weeks after Hurricane Maria, and substantial amounts of vital infrastructure around the country are still unusable, meaning that re-establishing cellular connections has been slow and as many as 83 percent of the population still aren’t able to access mobile services.
Not having a cellular service certainly isn’t as life threatening as needing access to clean water and safe food. But it does have an impact on a person’s ability to contact emergency services and get help in an accident or to contact family members after a disaster. It can also cause economic loss to businesses and employees who rely on voice or data connections over cellular towers.
For these reasons, the FCC has just granted permission for Alphabet to use their Project Loon balloons again to provide cellular and LTE connections across the country. The balloons are similar to a weather balloon but they have cellular equipment mounted to them to act as short-term mobile connection points. They are designed to spend long periods of time riding wind currents at up to 60,000 feet (18,300 meters), with a record setting balloon being aloft for 190 days. Data is transmitted from a ground based LTE tower, relayed around the balloon network and down to users on the ground. Tests have shown that the network can transmit between balloons that are over 100 km (62 miles) apart and down to users on the ground at speeds of 10 Mbps.
Due to the scale of the disaster, Tesla, Google, and Facebook are also involved in projects to help reconnect digital infrastructure in the battered country.