Google's WiFi Balloons Take Flight In Puerto Rico

Google's Project Loon uses balloons to send mobile phone signals to remote areas
Google via AFP

The FCC has given Alphabet an experimental license to deploy its Project Loon service to Puerto Rico, which is on the beginning of a long road to recovery after two massive storms brushed the island, removing almost all of the power and communications grid with it.

The FCC late last week authorized an experimental license for Project Loon, an initiative by Google parent company Alphabet to deploy antennas anywhere in the world by affixing them to large balloons.

In Puerto Rico, Project Loon will use land mobile radio spectrum in the 900 MHz band borrowed from mobile carriers now operating within the US territory. "I urge wireless carriers to cooperate with Project Loon to maximize this effort's chances of success". "It is critical that we adopt a coordinated and comprehensive approach to support the rebuilding of communications infrastructure and restoration of communications services", Pai said in statement. Loon will provide Puerto Ricans with access to cell service even if the cell sites are not yet restored. "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.

Leahy added Project Loon will need to partner with a telecommunications provider's network in order to get cell service up and running.

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"Loon balloons float 20km up in the stratosphere and so have the potential to extend connectivity to where it's needed regardless of what's happening below", Project Loon head Alastair Westgarth wrote at the time.

There were some initial doubts that Google could keep the balloons afloat for long periods of time, but the company has made consistent, notable strides on that front - previous year indicating they'd kept balloons aloft for as long as six months. According to the license, "t$3 he objective of the STA is to support licensed mobile carriers' restoration of limited communications capability in areas of Puerto Rico and the United States Virgin Islands (MTA025) affected by Hurricanes Irma and Maria".

A spokeswoman for Claro, a major wireless and land-line network operator on Puerto Rico, said Google approached the company to ask about a cellular frequency that Claro doesn't use.

"We were able to connect people in Peru quickly because we were already working closely with Telefónica on some tests, in this case, things are a little more complicated because we are starting from scratch", Google told Mashable, using the impact example which they had during the recent floods reported in that country. Google calls it "Project Loon" and has been running global trials in areas with challenging geographies and limited fiber networks.