The Alphabet X entity known as Project Loon announced that since turning on service a few weeks ago, it’s now delivered basic internet service to more than 100,000 people in Puerto Rico, up from the last reported figure of 10,000.
Highlighting the news is video of Pedro Emmanuelli, an autolaunch specialist, sharing that he is from Puerto Rico and has been proudly working to give people the connectivity they need to communicate. The video, which was shot in Winnemucca, Nevada, gives a glimpse of some of the machinations that go into launching one of the balloons; Emmanuelli is standing in front of a launcher as he describes the experience.
It was just four short years ago when critics called then-Google’s Project Loon a crazy idea and one that shouldn’t be taken seriously. But Loon engineers occasionally share learnings from their efforts, with the Captain of Moonshots Astro Teller even discussing how using fluffy socks in the early production process made the balloons work better. They've also disclosed that using portable autolaunchers allows engineers to move their operations to places that offer more favorable wind patterns in their quest to provide internet connectivity around the world.
Project X leaders still make a point to emphasize that Loon remains an early stage technology and the Puerto Rico deployment is the first time it’s been used in the U.S. Loon is collaborating with AT&T and T-Mobile. The service works by providing additional coverage from its partner’s network to their customers in areas where there’s currently no cell tower coverage.
“In times of crisis, being able to communicate with loved ones, emergency services and critical information is key,” said Alastair Westgarth, project lead at Project Loon, in a statement. “We hope that the connectivity Project Loon has provided over the last few weeks has been helpful, and would like to thank AT&T, T-Mobile and our government partners who made these efforts possible.”
In October, the FCC granted an experimental license for Project Loon to help provide emergency cellular service in Puerto Rico. The plan at that time called for having 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 capable of using LTE Band 8.
Meanwhile, many companies have been sending people and/or aid to the region. Verizon sent engineers and a lot of gear even though it doesn’t operate a network in Puerto Rico, and Liberty Global has boots on the ground working with companies like Kymeta and SES to provide satellite-based Wi-Fi hotspots that are transportable.
FCC Chairman Ajit Pai recently visited the island, and while a lot of efforts are being taken to repair systems, he believes (PDF) more funding will be needed in the months to come. During his stay there, he met with officials from AT&T, T-Mobile, Verizon and Open Mobile, among others.