Despite the best efforts of cell companies, the vast majority of Puerto Rico is offline. Internet coverage might seem like a luxury when people are struggling for clean water and power, but communications make moving essential supplies much easier, and enables lost families and friends to find each other.
And while some are providing food and other necessary materials, Project Loon, a division of Alphabet’s X lab (formerly Google X), is trying to set up temporary internet and cell service using giant balloons.
As Futurism is reporting, Project Loon has received expedited approval from the FCC to launch wireless data-providing balloons over Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands as soon as possible. The goal of Project Loon is to provide internet coverage to inaccessible or less developed parts of the world by floating large balloons in the stratosphere, at about 65,000 feet. The balloons carry signal relay points capable of communicating with service providers on the ground—in a sense they are more or less floating cell towers. According to Project Loon’s website, the balloons can stay up for as long as 190 days at a time.
Once they’re in place, the Loon balloons would be able to provide emergency cell service and high-speed internet to rescuers, workers, and citizens on the ground. Project Loon has provided similar disaster relief and testing in places ranging from France to Indonesia to Peru.
The situation in Puerto Rico appears more difficult for Google. For the balloons to work, they need a wireless backhaul, which is provided through a partnership with local cell companies. The 83% of cell towers are still down in Puerto Rico, and the groundwork hasn’t been put in place. By contrast, Google had already been testing in Peru when floods hit, so it was able to partner with Telefonica to get its system up and running in weeks.
The exact number of balloons that will be deployed over Puerto Rico is still unclear, as they must first establish an on-the-ground base from which to transmit to the balloons.
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