Just over a month ago, Hurricane Maria hit landfall over Puerto Rico. The destruction of homes, infrastructure and services was extensive, with many people left disconnected from the outside world. Now project loon is giving residents in remote areas across the island, access to wireless Internet and other basic LTE services by using high altitude balloon antennas.
Coming out of the Alphabet X innovation Lab, which is part of Google Parent Company, Project Loon was originally developed with the aim of providing internet access to rural world communities and remote areas where cell coverage is non-existent. It has since been used to provide relief in disaster zones with high levels of success. After receiving the go-ahead from the FCC, Project Loon is up and running, giving residents access to the outside word for the first time in weeks.
Project Loon got its name from the sheer lunacy of the idea of connecting over 5 billion people with balloon technology. The balloons themselves are launched into the stratosphere at an altitude of roughly 18 kilometres above sea level. Here, they create a wireless areal network capable of 4G-LTE speeds. The balloons are manoeuvred by simply adjusting their altitude within the stratosphere. By using wind data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Project Loon can find the desired wind layer to move the balloons into place.
High Altitude Networking
Once in place, the balloons create a wireless network that can connect to a local carrier, which in turn provides basic Internet connectivity to residents on the ground. Essentially, the system is using balloons to create high altitude cell towers. In Puerto Rico, Project Loon has teamed up with AT&T to bring resident’s limited Internet connectivity as well as support for text messaging, web access and email access. Since the hurricane hit, AT&T has been on the ground, working to restore access. They have since restored access to 60% of the population in Puerto Rico as well as 90% of the population in the US Virgin Islands.
Each balloon provides coverage of up to 5000 square kilometres and AT&T his hoping to cover most of the island. Access in Puerto Rico is provided using LTE band 8. This means that AT&T customers using devices like iPhones, Samsung Galaxy, Moto G, Blackberry Passport or the Motorola Z2 will be able to connect to the service in the same way they connect to a regular tower and access everything from standard communication services to mobile pokies. While certain iPhone users will need to install an upgrade, the bulk of users will be able to simply switch on and connect as usual. For now, the system will be up and running during daylight hours.
This is the second time project Loon has played a part in disaster recovery. Earlier in the year, project loon got its first real-world application when Peru was hit with massive flooding. Having already been testing in Peru, Project Loon was perfectly positioned to team up with Telefonica to immediately provide residents with back up communications where thousands of cell towers were destroyed in the flood.