By Mike Snider
The Federal Communications Commission has given Alphabet’s Moonshot Factory approval to deploy its Project Loon balloon-based communications system to provide cellular connectivity in hurricane-damaged Puerto Rico.
An experimental product from the laboratory formerly known as Google X, run by parent company Alphabet, Project Loon got an experimental license to help provide emergency cell service in the U.S. territory, FCC chairman Ajit Pai said Saturday.
“More than two weeks after Hurricane Maria struck, millions of Puerto Ricans are still without access to much-needed communications services,” Pai said in a statement. “That’s why we need to take innovative approaches to help restore connectivity on the island. Project Loon is one such approach.”
Other approaches include Facebook’s deployment of a “connectivity team” to help restore emergency telecommunications, an initiative CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced in a Facebook post Sept. 27. AT&T and T-Mobile have each set up portable communications sites.
Tesla CEO Elon Musk talked Friday with Puerto Rico’s Gov. Ricardo Rosselló about assisting in repair of the island’s power grid with solar-powered batteries. About 88% of Puerto Rico is still without power.
Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico Sept. 20 bringing 150-mph winds and massive flooding. The U.S. death toll from Maria now stands at 34 there.
As of Saturday, 22 of Puerto Rico’s 78 municipalities had no functioning cell sites at all, according to the FCC. Throughout the U.S. territory, nearly 82% of cell sites were out of service, a slight improvement over 83% on Friday, the FCC says.
There’s no official schedule for Project Loon’s deployment in Puerto Rico. “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 Libby Leahy, a spokesman for the company’s X division.
The project’s team also needs wireless companies on board. “To deliver signal to people’s devices, Loon needs be integrated with a telco partner’s network — the balloons can’t do it alone,” Leahy said, adding that the company is “making solid progress on this next step.”
Project Loon’s network of high-altitude balloons is meant to beam signals down from more than 12 miles above the earth as a way of connecting remote and rural residents. In addition to testing in New Zealand and in Indonesia, the X lab in May restored Internet connectivity to tens of thousands in flooded areas of Peru.
Deployment of the balloon system, “could help provide the people of Puerto Rico with access to cellular service to connect with loved ones and access life-saving information,” Pai said. “I urge wireless carriers to cooperate with Project Loon to maximize this effort’s chances of success.”
Source: USA Today – usatoday.com