T-Mobile revealed on Friday that it’s now working with Project Loon to help get LTE-based communications to people in Puerto Rico following the destruction caused by Hurricane Maria. That follows AT&T’s move a week earlier when it said it was supporting Loon’s efforts to provide basic communication and internet activities for some people with LTE-enabled phones.
While the Loon team emphasized last week that it was still an experimental system, it’s already been serving “tens of thousands” of people in Puerto Rico, so it appears to be working.
“Since turning on Project Loon service last week, we’ve delivered basic Internet connectivity to tens of thousands of people in Puerto Rico,” said Alastair Westgarth, project lead at Project Loon, in a statement. “We really appreciate the collaboration and support of AT&T and T-Mobile and hope that our efforts are helping during this incredibly difficult time.”
Loon has been launching balloons from a site in Nevada and navigating them to Puerto Rico. The Loon team worked with the government of Puerto Rico, as well as the FCC, FAA, FEMA, other spectrum partners and international aviation authorities, to bring service to the region.
Project Loon, which is part of X, an innovation lab within Alphabet, works with 4G LTE devices that support band 8. The company still considers it to be an experimental system, though, and says many unique factors could prevent a specific device from connecting.
The hope is that as Project Loon engineers get more familiar with the constantly shifting winds in the region, they can keep the balloons over areas where connectivity is needed for as long as possible.
For consumers, a signal appears on their device the same way it shows up on any LTE device—users see an AT&T or T-Mobile sign—so they won’t know just by looking at their phone if they’re connected via Project Loon or a cell tower.
T-Mobile CTO Neville Ray said in blog post that to date, T-Mobile has recovered more than 80% of its original prestorm outdoor signal in Puerto Rico. “We are working every day to close that gap and increase the density of our coverage in the higher populated areas,” he said. “We won’t stop!”
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“Our team has also left no stone unturned when it comes to getting people connected until infrastructure destroyed by Maria can be replaced,” he said. “One of these solutions is Project Loon, an experimental system that our engineering experts worked on with the team at X, Alphabet’s Moonshot factory. This balloon-based LTE access allows us to deliver more limited data and texting services to customers in hard to reach areas and I’m pleased to share that this is live as of today!”
Another example he gave was T-Mobile’s partnership with Vanu, a cellular antenna system company headed by Vanu Bose, to deploy several self-contained portable cellular network units that provide voice, data and text capabilities in some of the hardest hit areas.