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Alphabet eyes Project Loon to connect Puerto Rico

02 OCT 2017

Alphabet’s X lab revealed it is working to determine whether its Project Loon balloons can be used to provide emergency connectivity to hurricane battered Puerto Rico.

The island is currently dealing with a near total lack of electricity and nearly 89 per cent of cell sites remained out of service by the morning of 1 October. In the days immediately following the storm in late September, the FCC reported outages across 95 per cent of cell sites.

How it works
Project Loon refers to a network of high-altitude helium balloons which fly twice as high as aeroplanes and beam connectivity where it is needed via receivers suspended from the bottom of the balloons. To provide connectivity, Project Loon’s balloons are integrated into a telecommunications partner’s network to access and share the operator’s cellular spectrum.

One of the first real-world uses of the balloons took place in Peru in January, when the country was hit by floods while the Loon team was testing the system.

Alastair Westgarth, head of Project Loon, recently told Mobile World Live the team activated a live network spanning an area the size of Switzerland. The company collaborated with Telefonica on spectrum and coverage, he said.

Alphabet’s X team did not immediately respond to a request for comment on whether or not it contacted US operators, which are already at work trying to restore connectivity on the island. Company representatives for T-Mobile and Sprint could not immediately be reached for comment.

A Verizon representative noted the company does not operate its own wireless network in Puerto Rico, instead relying on roaming partners on the island to provide service. The representative said Verizon offered support to its partners, but is unaware of any aerial efforts like Project Loon which may be underway. However, the Verizon Foundation pledged $5 million to support long term recovery efforts on the island.

Rival AT&T sent four cargo planes loaded with supplies and personnel to the island. A company representative was unable to confirm if the operator is working with Project Loon, but told Mobile World Live it deployed more than 50 generators to power wireless and wireline equipment. AT&T also established temporary cell sites in the cities of Ponce, Arecibo, Humacao and Aguadilla.

Those cell sites processed more than 100,000 calls in the last 24 hours, the representative said. AT&T is planning to deploy additional temporary cell sites in Mayaguez, Rio Grande, Fajardo, and Guavate.

Author

Diana Goovaerts

Diana joins Mobile World Live as its new US Editor, reporting on infrastructure and spectrum rollouts, regulatory issues, and other carrier news from the US market. Diana comes to GSMA from her former role as Editor of Wireless Week and...

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