FCC Approves Alphabet's Project Loon for Hurricane-Devastated Puerto Rico

NEWS ANALYSIS: The Federal Communications Commission has approved a license to enable Alphabet's X innovation lab to set up its Project Loon communications system to provide emergency cell service to hurricane-devastated Puerto Rico.

Project Loon in Puerto Rico

First, it was the hams. In the terrifying aftermath of Hurricane Maria, the only communications available to residents came from the few ham radio operators who were able to get their equipment running because they had generators to provide power.

Phone service on the island did not exist. The government had some communications, but that was being used for official business including waging Tweet wars with Washington.

For everyone else, to get word out about emergency conditions, you had to walk. The roads were blocked by debris. There was no fuel. When the airport reopened and flights resumed, volunteers began to arrive with their radios and generators. But Puerto Rico is a large island and roads were still impassable and bridges washed out. The ham radio operators provided a vital service, but it was not nearly enough.

Worse, the conditions on the ground were, and continue to be, bad enough that the wireless companies are making only slow progress in restoring communications. Enter Project Loon, the balloon-based communications platform developed by Alphabet’s X innovation lab.

Loon is intended to provide LTE communications between stations on the ground by linking them to high-altitude balloons equipped with airborne repeaters. A transceiver on a balloon would get an LTE signal from a cell phone or a wireless company’s cell site and relay it from one balloon to another to complete the connection. This worked for emergency communications in Peru following a recent earthquake there.

However, in Puerto Rico Alphabet was starting from scratch and it needed permission to operate. That permission came from the Federal Communications Commission in the form of an experimental license that sailed through the commission bureaucracy in days and was approved on Oct 6.

“More than two weeks after Hurricane Maria struck, millions of Puerto Ricans are still without access to much-needed communications services,” said FCC Chairman Ajit Pai in a prepared statement. “That’s why we need to take innovative approaches to help restore connectivity on the island. Project Loon is one such approach. It could help provide the people of Puerto Rico with access to cellular service to connect with loved ones and access life-saving information."

Project Loon’s wireless network also needs the cooperation of the wireless carriers on the island to work, because those calls still need the cellular network to function to provide connections to the wider telephone network. The required 900 MHz consent agreements are already in place in the Project Loon license, according to the FCC.

“We’re grateful for the support of the FCC and the Puerto Rican authorities as we work hard to see if it’s possible to use Loon balloons to bring emergency connectivity to the island during this time of need,” said X spokesperson Libby Leahy in an email to eWEEK. “To deliver signal to people’s devices, Loon needs be integrated with a telco partner’s network—the balloons can’t do it alone. We’ve been making solid progress on this next step.”

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash

Wayne Rash is a freelance writer and editor with a 35 year history covering technology. He’s a frequent speaker on business, technology issues and enterprise computing. He covers Washington and...