The devastation caused to Puerto Rico by September’s Hurricane Maria is so complete that much less than half of the island’s cell service is operational more than a month after the storm hit.
Less than a third of the island’s power grid is running and that’s delaying the restoration of island's infrastructure. The lack of communications is especially troubling, because without communications, sending relief or providing emergency care is impossible in some areas.
A few days ago the Federal Communications Commission gave Alphabet's X group an experimental license to operate its Project Loon balloon-borne wireless platform over Puerto Rico so that it could provide emergency communications. Now, less than two weeks after receiving the license, Project Loon balloons are already floating over the island and starting to provide communications.
“Working with AT&T, Project Loon is now supporting basic communication and internet activities like sending text messages and accessing information online for some people with LTE enabled phones,” said Alastair Westgarth, head of Project Loon, in a prepared statement. Westgarth said that the Project Loon staff is still learning how to keep the balloons where they’re needed.
“This is the first time we have used our new machine learning powered algorithms to keep balloons clustered over Puerto Rico, so we’re still learning how best to do this,” Westgarth said. “As we get more familiar with the constantly shifting winds in this region, we hope to keep the balloons over areas where connectivity is needed for as long as possible.”
He said that the Loon team has never tried to deploy the project’s connectivity from scratch in such a short time. Westgarth said that the rapid turn-around required the active cooperation of a number of partners. He said that the effort will continue as long as possible.
“We plan to continue to offer emergency internet connectivity in areas where it’s needed for as long as it is useful and we’re able to do so. Project Loon is still an experimental technology and we’re not quite sure how well it will work, but we hope it helps get people the information and communication they need to get through this unimaginably difficult time,” he said.
Initially, the project Loon balloons aren’t being launched in Puerto Rico, but rather from a launch site in Nevada. Once the balloons reach the stratosphere, they’re then steered using prevailing winds to Puerto Rico. The Loon team has found that they can control the balloons for long distances before reaching their destination. For example, when Loon was first being deployed during tests in New Zealand, the balloons would have to circumnavigate the earth to reach a spot in Australia during testing.