The US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) granted an experimental licence for Alphabet’s X lab Project Loon to provide emergency cellular service in Puerto Rico, where communications services were all but wiped out by Hurricane Maria in September.
FCC chairman Ajit Pai called upon operators to cooperate with Project Loon “to maximise this effort’s chances of success.”
Project Loon uses receivers mounted on a network of helium-filled balloons flying at twice the height of commercial aircraft to deliver connectivity across a wide area. To achieve this, the balloon network requires access to mobile operators’ ground infrastructure and spectrum.
In the case of Puerto Rico, the project obtained consent agreements from operators to use to spectrum in the 900MHz band.
Pai explained Hurricane Maria had left millions of Puerto Ricans without access “to much-needed communications services. That’s why we need to take innovative approaches to help restore connectivity on the island.”
The island is currently dealing with a near total lack of electricity and the FCC said some 81.7 per cent of cell sites remained out of service as of 8 October.
In the days immediately following the storm, the FCC reported outages across 95 per cent of cell sites.
Project Loon is a high-profile initiative that has been on the receiving end of a fair amount of cynicism. However, earlier this month the project’s head told Mobile World Live it is gearing up to become a commercial, money-making venture in the future.