Loon, the balloon-flying entity that used to be known as Google’s Project Loon, is urging the FCC to consider innovative alternatives when it comes to rebuilding mobile services in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
The FCC is accepting comments on how best to structure the allocations of a second stage of the Uniendo a Puerto Rico Fund and the Connect USVI Fund, which seek to rebuild, improve and expand voice and broadband networks in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. The commission is making millions of dollars available to carriers as part of restoration efforts. Loon’s comments (PDF) are in response to that rulemaking.
“Carriers should be incentivized to pursue the best available approaches to expand resilience and coverage,” Loon told the commission. “Accordingly, when awarding Universal Service Fund (USF) support to eligible telecommunications companies in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, the FCC should clear a path for the use of cutting-edge technologies, including those employed by Loon, which provide new ways to improve the resilience of mobile systems.”
Loon worked in partnership with AT&T and T-Mobile to reach nearly the entire geography of Puerto Rico, connecting more than 250,000 unique users, in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. They provided residents with LTE phones and accommodated sufficient data for the equivalent of 350 million WhatsApp messages.
Each Loon balloon can cover a ground area of more than 5,000 square kilometers. By navigating the winds and clustering balloons in teams, Loon supplied an extended LTE network to its telecom operator partners. “Loon’s fleet can respond quickly, potentially within hours of a disaster, inasmuch as its solar-powered balloons can be pre-positioned at 60,000 feet in the stratosphere and require minimal ground support,” according to the company.
Loon last year shared how it was launching balloons from its site in Nevada to sail them over to Puerto Rico. The real value of the service lies in extending the reach of mobile networks to places where ground-based infrastructure can’t go.
Loon is not the only one advising the commission to allow for more innovation. AT&T also noted that wireless carriers worked together in Puerto Rico to use drones and balloons to provide services and enable open roaming to all carriers on the island. “A rigid approach to disaster response, as contemplated in the NPRM, may have prevented or delayed carriers from incorporating cutting edge technologies like these into relief efforts,” AT&T told the commission (PDF).
Earlier in July, Loon dropped the “Project” from its name, becoming an independent company within Alphabet. It also announced its first engagement in Africa, where it’s teaming with Telkom Kenya to provide balloon-powered internet to regions of central Kenya starting in 2019.