NEWS

How one company is using balloons to help Puerto Rico bounce back

Since Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico one month ago, the island has been struggling to restore even the most essential services, including running water, electricity, and the transportation network. Exacerbating the situation is widespread cell network outages across the island, which prevents people from contacting loved ones outside Puerto Rico to confirm their well-being.

Additionally – and perhaps more importantly – the cell network outages are hindering relief efforts.

This Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2017 photo provided by Project Loon shows a stratospheric balloon taking off for Puerto Rico from the project site in Winnemucca, Nev. Google's parent Alphabet Inc. said Friday that its stratospheric balloons are now delivering the internet to remote areas of Puerto Rico where cellphone towers were knocked out by Hurricane Maria. Two of the search giant's "Project Loon" balloons are already over the country enabling texts, emails and basic web access to AT&T customers with handsets that use its 4G LTE network. (Project Loon via AP)
This Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2017 photo provided by Project Loon shows a stratospheric balloon taking off for Puerto Rico from the project site in Winnemucca, Nev. Google’s parent Alphabet Inc. said Friday that its stratospheric balloons are now delivering the internet to remote areas of Puerto Rico where cellphone towers were knocked out by Hurricane Maria. Two of the search giant’s “Project Loon” balloons are already over the country enabling texts, emails and basic web access to AT&T customers with handsets that use its 4G LTE network. (Project Loon via AP)

Thousands of shipping containers full of humanitarian supplies arrived in the Port of San Juan last month to be dispersed throughout Puerto Rico. Without being able to contact truck drivers by phone, however, most of the containers could not be delivered. One company hopes it can temporarily restore Puerto Rico’s cell network using innovative aeronautical technology: balloons.

Project Loon is a subsidiary of Google’s parent company, Alphabet, and it aims to “extend Internet connectivity to people in rural and remote areas worldwide”. To accomplish this mission, Project Loon deploys a series of large, helium-filled balloons, each one with its own miniaturized transceiver system that enables communication with cellular base stations and with other balloons.

The balloons are launched into the stratosphere, where they can float along wind currents for up to 100 days; at an altitude of 19 kilometers, each balloon can provide its own wireless network covering almost 7,800 square kilometers.

Earlier this month, the Federal Communication Commission granted an “experimental license” for Project Loon to deploy its balloons in Puerto Rico. Though the company has been permitted to use the same radio spectrum as existing wireless carriers in Puerto Rico, it still needs a telecommunications provider to host the ad hoc balloon network. Once Project Loon is able to integrate with a local cell provider, it hopes to provide wireless connectivity to all 3.4 million residents of Puerto Rico using just 30 of its balloons.

Though Project Loon is unlikely to provide high speed internet to most users, the restoration of call and text functionality could prove to be a major step in Puerto Rico’s recovery.

Sources and Further Reading