Project Loon to the Rescue

Alphabet Balloons to Offer Emergency Cellular Service in Puerto Rico

Last Friday, the US Federal Communications Commission granted an experimental licence for Alphabet’s Project Loon, allowing the company to create a network of balloons to help temporarily restore wireless phone service in hurricane-battered Puerto Rico. Hurricane Maria ravaged the island last month, destroying much of its infrastructure.

“More than two weeks after Hurricane Maria struck, millions of Puerto Ricans are still without access to much-needed communications services,” said chairman of the commission, Ajit Pai. “That’s why we need to take innovative approaches to help restore connectivity on the island.”

Project Loon was announced in 2013 as part of Google X, the company’s enigmatic research and development unit working on longer-term, visionary projects or “moonshots”. The original intention of the project was to connect the unconnected, bringing the Internet to parts of the world that have struggled to roll out traditional connectivity networks.

The programme consists of a network of high-altitude unmanned balloons that rise to a height above 60,000 feet. They are designed to “ride the wind” to reach a destination. The balloons are equipped with a transmitter, control computer, GPS sensor and their electronics are solar-powered. They can withstand more than 100 days in the stratosphere and have a coverage area of 5,000 square kilometres. With a fleet of 30 balloons, the initiative is expected to provide LTE coverage for all of Puerto Rico and, potentially, parts of the US Virgin Islands.

Project Loon, which was moved under the Alphabet umbrella, has launched several successful pilot programmes, but has yet to be deployed commercially. It was able to help Peru earlier in 2017 after serious floods hit the country. However, it hasn’t generated revenue for Google or Alphabet, and it’s under pressure from investors to demonstrate that such endeavours can be profitable.

There’s no doubt that Project Loon is an innovative approach to network architecture and has grabbed more than its share of publicity. Alphabet is becoming increasingly diversified as it explores a host of long-term bets such as Project Loon. Google has a clear vested interest in bringing the Internet to heard-to-reach places, echoing similar moves from Facebook. The aim of connecting the unconnected can often be viewed with cynicism, but Alphabet can now become an unlikely hero, earning goodwill if not immediate revenue from this effort.