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Google Gets a License to Operate Loon Balloons in Puerto Rico PDF Print E-mail
Wednesday, 11 October 2017 12:41

The FCC has granted an experimental license for Project Loon, led by Google's parent company Alphabet, to help provide emergency cellular service in Puerto Rico.

“More than two weeks after Hurricane Maria struck, millions of Puerto Ricans are still without access to much-needed communications services,” said Chairman Pai.  “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.  I’m glad the FCC was able to grant this experimental license with dispatch and I urge wireless carriers to cooperate with Project Loon to maximize this effort’s chances of success.”

Project Loon is a network of balloons that provides connectivity to users on the ground.  Now that the experimental license has been approved, it will attempt to initiate service in Puerto Rico.  Project Loon obtained consent agreements to use land mobile radio (LMR) radio spectrum in the 900 MHz band from existing carriers operating within Puerto Rico.

The helium balloons are expected to deliver emergency LTE cellular reception to allow residents and local governments to contact friends and family, coordinate relief and restoration efforts, and reestablish communication with the outside world. It’s unclear to what extent Loon will cover Puerto Rico or parts of the Virgin Islands, or how many balloons the team plans to deploy.

“The purpose of the [Special Temporary Authority] is to support licensed mobile carriers’ restoration of limited communications capability in areas of Puerto Rico and the United States Virgin Islands affected by Hurricanes Irma and Maria,” the license reads.

Just last week, the Loon team said it was looking into helping Puerto Rico, still devastated by Hurricane Maria, regain connectivity. The island, home to nearly 3.5 million people, remains crippled by the Category 4 storm that struck last month, which disabled more than 90 percent of Puerto Rico’s cell towers and left its communications infrastructure in shambles. In a report issued yesterday, the FCC revealed that 83 percent of cell towers on the island are still down, with the US Virgin Islands in a similar state.

Loon is one of Google’s original “moonshot efforts designed to bring connectivity to remote areas of the world and locales struggling in the aftermath of natural disaster. It appears to be a perfect fit for helping Puerto Rico get back online. Helping speed up the process is the Loon team’s existing involvement with telecommunications provider Telefonica on the island.

A spokesperson for Alphabet’s X lab said the team needs to work with a partner network of a local cell carrier, like Telefonica, to make it all work. “To deliver signal to people's devices, Loon needs be integrated with a telco partner's network — the balloons can't do it alone,” the spokesperson explains. “We've been making solid progress on this next step and would like to thank everyone who's been lending a hand.” This isn’t Loon’s first deployment; the team has been expanded its testing over the years to include initiatives in Brazil, France, Indonesia, New Zealand, and Sri Lanka, among others.

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