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.”
Project Loon was originally intended to provide wide area internet access to underserved parts of the world through the use of those balloon based transceivers. In this case, the use has been modified to serve Puerto Rico, but this is a use where Loon is likely to be successful. It’s based on a series of mobile launchers, and by real-time monitoring of the position and operation of each airborne platform.
The Loon balloons operate in the stratosphere and maintain their location by rising and falling to altitudes where the winds are going in the proper direction. Each Loon platform carries solar powered radios and control equipment, along with batteries to keep the platform powered at night. Each Loon platform is designed to stay airborne for about six months, after which it makes a controlled descent where the electronics and control package can be picked up for reuse or recycling.
The team at Alphabet’s X is quick to point out that Loon is still in its early stages, and that the project won’t be operational in Puerto Rico until the wireless companies cooperate in integrating with Loon. The reason it was able to work so quickly in Peru is because Loon had already begun testing with Telefonica, the wireless carrier there. That stage hasn’t happened yet in Puerto Rico. At this point, Alphabet hasn’t said when it expects to begin operations in Puerto Rico.
By now you’ve probably noticed that you can’t depend on cell service during a natural disaster, or for that matter during any kind of area-wide emergency. Cell sites can become overwhelmed quickly, as can the telephone network on which they depend. Yet communications is vital to your organization and to the well-being of your employees. So what can you do?
First, do whatever you can to encourage your employees to become ham radio operators, and do what you can to have your company support amateur radio. While you can’t conduct business over amateur radio, your employees can help see that their communities get emergency communications and health and welfare messages out and information in. This service can be critical during a disaster.
Second, invest in an alternate form of communications. You can buy a satellite phone from Amazon for under $1,000 and a used one for much less. They are the size and shape of a cell phone, they will handle voice calls, text messages and email, Most perform GPS location and some can be programmed with an emergency message and recipient list.
There are two carriers for satellite phones, Inmarsat and Iridium. Both work globally, although Iridium has better coverage in northern latitudes. Both cost about a dollar per minute to use. A few of these from one carrier or the other distributed in your management and senior staff can save your business and maybe your life.
Editor’s Note: The headlines and abstracts of this article were updated to reflect that Project Loon is part of Alphabet’s X innovation lab.