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.
Now the Loon team has learned how to control the balloons much more accurately, to the point that they can assemble only a small cluster over a certain area. This makes it possible for the Loon data relay systems to stay where they’re needed for long periods of time so users on the ground can access the wireless service more reliably.
At this point the Loon service is available to AT&T customers with LTE phones. Those customers will see the familiar AT&T information at the top of their phone screens. However the service provided by Loon will only provide data calls, including text messages, limited web browsing, email and the like. Those customers won’t be able to tell initially whether the signal they’re seeing comes from a cell tower or a balloon.
It’s not clear when the Loon team plans to begin launching balloons from Puerto Rico, however the team at X is already distributing photos of the first Project Loon facility in Puerto Rico. A launch site there would shorten the time it takes to get additional balloons into service, because they wouldn’t have to fly the balloons over from Nevada.
However, at this point the Loon team is still learning what the balloons can do and where they need to provide effective service. Currently the plan is for the balloons to provide basic services to portions of Puerto Rico where there’s no other service.
Each balloon can cover a total area equal to about half the area of the island. Because the balloons move around several will be needed to make sure that there’s always one available where it’s needed.
Astro Teller, captain of moonshots for X, said in his blog that the Loon team was prepared for it to fail. “It’s still a surprise to many of us that Loon is looking as promising as it is; for years, the team focused their efforts on proving that Loon wouldn’t work. Even the Project name tells you that our mindset when we got started was more ‘worth a shot’ rather than ‘this could work.’ Yet with each passing year, we keep finding the next steps on the path to making balloon-powered Internet a reality.”
As each stumbling block appeared, the team found a way to overcome it. As Teller said in his blog, “if we’d known how hard it was going to be, we probably never would have tried.” Fortunately for the people of Puerto Rico, they tried.