AT&T partnered with Google to deliver connectivity to hurricane-battered Puerto Rico via Project Loon.

According to a blog post from Google’s X lab: “working with AT&T, Project Loon is now supporting basic communication and internet activities like sending text messages and accessing information online for some people with LTE enabled phones” on the island.

Project Loon is an experimental technology which uses helium filled balloons floating in the stratosphere to beam connectivity from ground-based telecoms infrastructure across a wide area.

X lab received permission to launch from the US Federal Communications Commission (FCC) earlier this month and also secured green lights from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA).

In a Tweet, FCC chairman Ajit Pai said he was “thrilled” the service is now live in Puerto Rico.

AT&T partnered with Google to provide some of the ground-based telecom infrastructure Project Loon relies on to provide emergency internet service. Additional ground infrastructure was provided by SES Networks and Liberty Cablevision, while spectrum was provided by eight different partners, including the Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority.

Full of firsts
Google noted this is the first time Project Loon had been launched from scratch at a moment’s notice. X lab also reported this deployment is the first time it’s using machine learning powered algorithms to keep the Project Loon balloons stationed over Puerto Rico. Google said the X lab team is “still learning” how to manoeuvre the balloons in the shifting winds of the area, but is aiming to keep them over areas where connectivity is needed for as long as it can.

“We plan to continue to offer emergency internet connectivity in areas where it’s needed for as long as it is useful and we’re able to do so,” the X lab team wrote: “Project Loon is still an experimental technology and we’re not quite sure how well it will work, but we hope it helps get people the information and communication they need to get through this unimaginably difficult time.”

The FCC reported around 67 per cent of cell sites on Puerto Rico remained out of service as of the morning of 22 October, compared with 95 per cent which were offline immediately following Hurricane Maria in September. The FCC indicated 63 per cent of the island’s population is now covered by cell phone service. The commission did not comment on the impact of Project Loon on connectivity on Puerto Rico. However, the FCC did note wireless carriers have deployed other temporary technologies to help restore service, including truck-mounted cell sites using satellite and regular connections in four counties.