Puerto Rico Looks to Alphabet’s X Project Loon Balloons to Restore Cell Service

More than three weeks after Hurricane Maria made landfall in Puerto Rico, much of the island remains without access to cell phone service and electricity. In addition to taking dozens of lives, the storm’s 175–kilometer per hour winds, heavy rainfall and flooding destroyed most cell towers and brought down the power grid entirely. Progress to restore these essential services has been slow, given the damage to the island’s infrastructure on the ground. Some relief could be on the way from above, however, in the form of massive, translucent plastic balloons. Launched by Alphabet—Google’s parent company—the balloons could create a network to restore wireless communications for most of the island’s 3.4 million residents.

The floating orbs—which look and move like jellyfish drifting in Earth’s stratosphere—are part of Project Loon, Alphabet’s experimental effort to deliver wireless services to unserved or underserved areas around the world. Puerto Rico will be Project Loon’s biggest challenge since Alphabet’s X (previously known as Google X) officially launched the effort in 2013. X’s plan is to float the solar-powered, helium-filled balloons about 19 kilometers above Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands for up to six months, creating a wireless network on the ground covering nearly 7,800 square kilometers. (The island itself is just over 9,100 square kilometers.) The balloons can stay aloft in the stratosphere for 100 days or more at a time, according to the company. They change position by navigating the stratosphere’s well-charted wind currents.

It is unclear when the balloons might arrive, but the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) granted Alphabet an experimental license (pdf) on October 7 to deploy 30 of them. Project Loon is now looking to collaborate with local telecom providers in Puerto Rico, which could install small base stations called microcells on lampposts, buildings and other locations where there is a…

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