Alphabet’s balloon-based Internet connectivity initiative, called Project Loon, is coming to the rescue in hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico.
Project Loon, which was originally conceived as a way to deliver broadband Internet access around the world using stratospheric balloons, is now finding a new purpose. Alphabet is using machine learning algorithms to keep balloons clustered over Puerto Rico, providing emergency Internet service to the parts of the island that suffered the most from Hurricane Maria.
In a blog post, Alastair Westgarth, head of Project Loon, said Alphabet is collaborating with AT&T to deliver emergency services like Internet connectivity, text messaging, and other basic services to those with LTE-enabled devices. Westgarth said the company had to work closely with aviation authorities and air traffic controllers to get the balloons from Alphabet’s launch site in Nevada to Puerto Rico. In addition, he noted that satellite company SES Networks and cable provider Liberty Cablevision helped Project Loon get the necessary ground infrastructure in place so the balloons could get Internet connectivity. Plus, the FCC had to grant the company an experimental license so it could operate in Puerto Rico.
Project Loon’s balloons are designed to “sail” on winds in the stratosphere. The balloons are equipped with transceivers that can receive an LTE signal from a cell site or cell phone and relay it from one balloon to another to make the connection.
The project was first introduced in 2013 as a way to provide inexpensive Internet service to areas that are currently underserved because it’s too costly to deploy infrastructure in areas like jungles or mountains. At the time Alphabet said that Project Loon would be able to deliver broadband speeds equal to 3G networks or faster.
Today, Project Loon appears to have found a niche in disaster recovery. However, the balloon-based service could conceivably play a role in multi-access edge computing (MEC) and the Internet of Things (IoT) by providing connections and processing power on demand.
Westgarth has been project lead at Loon since February. He’s a long-time wireless executive, and before joining Project Loon he was CEO of Quintel, a wireless infrastructure company. He also headed up fixed mobile convergence firm Tango Networks and worked in small cells as CTO of Airspan.
From Peru to Puerto Rico
This isn’t the first time Project Loon has been used to help out in a disaster situation. In May, the group worked with Telefónica to provide basic Internet connectivity to thousands of people in Lima, Chimbote, and Piura, Peru, after floods wiped out the existing infrastructure.
Project Loon later estimated that it helped send more than 160 GB of data, or enough data to send and receive around 30 million WhatsApp messages or 2 million emails, over an area about the size of Switzerland.
For its part, AT&T said that more than 60 percent of the population of Puerto Rico has connectivity and 90 percent of the U.S. Virgin Islands. The operator said that it has deployed more than 17 portable network assets including 14 temporary cell sites. It is also deploying portable charging stations for residents to charge their devices.