Google's Project Loon working with AT&T to get basic wireless services to Puerto Rico

Project Loon balloon (X)
A Loon balloon on its way to Puerto Rico from Nevada. (X)

Project Loon found a telecom partner in AT&T to help get basic communication and internet activities to some people with LTE-enabled phones in Puerto Rico.

It marks the first time the X project within Google parent Alphabet has used its new machine learning-powered algorithms to keep balloons clustered over Puerto Rico, and it’s still a learning process, according to a blog post by Alastair Westgarth, head of Project Loon.

The team will keep the balloons hovering for as long as possible as they continue to learn how to navigate the constantly shifting winds in the region, Westgarth said.

“We’ve never deployed Project Loon connectivity from scratch at such a rapid pace, and we’re grateful for the support of AT&T and the many other partners and organizations that have made this possible,” he added.

AT&T said it’s been working around the clock to restore service, and as of Friday it was processing more than 12 million calls and 6 million texts a day in Puerto Rico. It sent five planes and nearly 40 ships containing network supplies, equipment, vehicles and personnel to Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, and it’s continuing to send more assets as needed. It also deployed 17 mobile cell sites, five emergency communications portables and six charging stations and staged and refueled nearly 600 generators.

The Project Loon team has been working with the government of Puerto Rico, as well as the FCC, FAA, FEMA, spectrum partners and international aviation authorities to bring service to the island that was hit by Hurricane Maria last month. Balloons used for the Puerto Rico efforts were being launched from Nevada.

The Loon team is trying to manage expectations and said the experimental service is designed to support basic internet communications activities like text messaging, SMS, status updates, basic web access and email during daylight hours. The service works with 4G LTE Band 8 devices.   

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

Loon was granted an experimental license by the FCC earlier this month to help provide emergency cellular service in the region, but it wasn’t clear how much the balloons would help because they still needed a telco partner with which to integrate. 

Others are involved as well. The Pan-American and Puerto Rican governments’ aviation authorities and air traffic controllers enabled Loon to send small teams of balloons from its launch site in Nevada to Puerto Rico. In addition, SES Networks and Liberty Cablevision helped set up essential ground infrastructure so that the balloons could get internet connectivity.

Included in Loon’s FCC 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 made a point to thank the following entities as well: High Tech Communications Services, MilkyWay Communications, North Sight Communications, PDV Spectrum Holding Company, Space Data Spectrum Holdings, Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority/PREPA Networks, Sensus Spectrum and Spok.

RELATED: Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, Sprint work at restoring service in Puerto Rico

As of Oct. 20, 68.2% of cell sites were out of service in Puerto Rico, according to the FCC (PDF). All counties in Puerto Rico except Bayamon, Caguas, Catano, San Juan, and Toa Baja had greater than 50% of their cell sites out of service, and five of the 78 counties in Puerto Rico had 100% of their cell sites down.