Loon gets OK to help provide emergency cell service in Puerto Rico

Loon balloon
The FCC granted Project Loon's application to try to provide communications in Puerto Rico. (Project Loon)

Project Loon, led by Google’s parent company Alphabet, will get a chance to show how its network of balloons can provide connectivity to the people of Puerto Rico thanks to the FCC’s approval on Friday.

The FCC granted an experimental license for Project Loon to help provide emergency cellular service in Puerto Rico, where millions continue to be without phone service. As of Sunday, 81.7% of cell sites were still out of service, according to the FCC (PDF).

The purpose of the FCC's Special Temporary Authority (STA) to Loon is to support licensed mobile carriers' restoration of communications in areas of Puerto Rico and the United States Virgin Islands affected by Hurricanes Irma and Maria, according to the application.

Included in the application were letters from 800 and 900 MHz license holders in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands providing their consent for Loon to use frequencies granted to them. Loon said it also holds all necessary government authorizations for the related aeronautical activities.

The plan is to have Loon balloons with directional antennas positioned over Puerto Rico and/or the U.S. Virgin Islands to be used to relay communications between ground terminals interconnected with wireless carrier networks and end users’ handsets that are capable of using LTE Band 8. The frequencies specified in the application will be used in conjunction with Part 15 unlicensed Wi­-Fi to support the communications, Loon said.

“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 press release posted Saturday. “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 part of X, which is an innovation lab within Alphabet. 

“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 a statement provided to FierceWirelessTech. "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 and would like to thank everyone who’s been lending a hand.”

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Loon’s balloons were able to help out in Peru earlier this year because Loon had established a partnership with Telefonica and they had conducted tests prior to the extreme flooding in the area in May. So when Loon engineers saw the flooding in Peru, they reached out to Telefonica and the government to see how they could help, according to Alastair Westgarth, head of Project Loon, in a post at the time.

An Alphabet spokesperson told Mashable that things were a little more complicated in Puerto Rico because they were starting from scratch; they were able to connect people in Peru quickly because they already had an established relationship with Telefonica.

The Loon Project has come a long way since it was named for a “loony” idea. During initial tests in New Zealand in 2013, Loon engineers figured they’d need a continuous stream of balloons around the world so that as one balloon drifted away, another would be ready to take its place.

But as pointed out in a post earlier this year, the more the Loon team flew, they realized the balloons could ride the winds in small enough loops to cluster balloons over a single area, rather than circling the world. Due in part to that discovery, engineers realized they’re years closer to meeting their goal of bringing internet connectivity to underserved areas using the technology.

Editor's Note: Story updated Oct. 10 with additional statement from X and clarification that Loon is part of X and not Google.