Alphabet’s Loon gets partner in AT&T to extend global coverage

Alphabet-owned Loon will be able to respond more quickly and effectively to disasters worldwide thanks to a new partnership with AT&T.

Under the deal, Loon has integrated its system with AT&T’s network, which happens to be pretty big since it has roaming partners around the world. That means where Loon wants to enter a market on short notice, it will be able to provide service to a third-party mobile operator, assuming they have a standard international roaming agreement with AT&T.

“While coordination with a local operator will be crucial, Loon’s ability to leverage the AT&T network vastly expands the number of operators around the world that Loon can work with without having to complete time-intensive network integration for each one,” wrote Loon CEO Alastair Westgarth in a blog post. “In a disaster scenario, this will save valuable time and enable Loon to simultaneously serve several, if not all, the mobile operators in a market.”

The deal is significant because Loon needs to hook up with local LTE operators where it delivers service and it often does so in times of disaster – when events like hurricanes wipe out the existing infrastructure.  

The cruel irony of a disaster is that’s the moment when people need connectivity the most but it’s the absolute hardest time to provide it when cell towers are knocked over and power is out.  

“This is where we see Loon being a complementary solution because we’re far above the ground weather, we’re solar powered, we’re carrying our own backhaul,” explained Loon Product Manager Emily Yousling. “We’re covering about 20 to 30 times the coverage of a normal cell tower. For all those reasons, it’s yet another tool in the telco’s toolkit or portfolio of solutions they could deploy after a disaster.”

In fact, Loon has come around to thinking more about disaster preparedness rather than a disaster response. For example, with a strong hurricane season expected in the Caribbean, it’s working to strategically install ground stations in the region so it can reach more countries when the time comes.

Loon previously worked with T-Mobile as well after Hurricane Maria swept through Puerto Rico in 2017. But flash forward a few years, and Loon decided it wanted to find an operator that could enable it to scale and AT&T was the ideal partner, according to Henry de Chaillé, who’s in charge of Business Development at Loon.

“At AT&T, delivering reliable connections is central to our mission. So in situations when disaster strikes — and our customers need connection more than ever — rapidly restoring communications is critical. We’re pleased to work with Loon to make this an ongoing reality for customers around the world,” said JR Wilson, AT&T vice president of Tower Strategy and Roaming, in a statement.

RELATED: Loon poses modest impact on terrestrial LTE: study

Whether the end-user actual knows they’re using Loon service depends on how the solution is implemented. In places like Peru or Kenya, it acts as a direct extension of its partner’s network. The customer will see the local operator on their phone and they might not know they’re being served by a balloon or terrestrial network.

The solution with AT&T is different, de Chaillé said. If service is deployed through an AT&T partner after a disaster, the consumer will see the AT&T network on the phone, in which case, the user would know that the service is being deployed through the disaster-related solution. 

RELATED: Loon finally gets OK to fly in Kenya

Loon started out as a project within Google and eventually graduated to become an independent business within Alphabet. In March, it announced that the Kenyan government had given formal approval for Loon’s balloons to operate in the stratosphere above the country, providing a critical step in providing commercial service there with Telkom Kenya.

That also meant it would start dispatching existing airborne balloons and preparing new ones to launch from its launch sites in the U.S. and navigating them to Kenya. While flight engineers supervise them, the balloons autonomously fly with the wind to reach their destination.

Like everybody, the COVID-19 crisis has caused Loon to adjust some of its operations, but it also has proven that its structure makes it resilient, de Chaillé said. Much of its work is automated and can be done remotely, and fortunately, it doesn’t have to send technicians into the stratosphere to repair its systems.