The FCC has approved an experimental license for Alphabet, Inc’s Project Loon to attempt to restore wireless service to storm-ravaged Puerto Rico using its high-altitude balloons, according to FCC Chief of Staff Matthew Berry.
Though the Loon technology is not entirely proven, it could help speed the restoration of vital communications as the U.S. territory works to recover from the devastation of Hurricane Maria.
It could also help prove the business case for Loon, one of the experimental “moonshots” debuted as part of Google, and now housed under Alphabet subsidiary X.
More than 80% of Puerto Rico’s cellular towers are still out of service more than two weeks after the arrival there of Hurricane Maria, and nearly one-third of the island’s counties have no service, according to the FCC. Rebuilding conventional cell towers will be “a long road,” T-Mobile told CNN, thanks to challenges including not just the cost of construction, but, according to some wireless companies, theft and crime against their operations.
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Loon balloons, which carry communications equipment as high as 20 kilometers into the atmosphere, would circumvent those earthbound hurdles — at least temporarily. Loon recently rolled out internet and LTE service in Peru after flooding there, reportedly providing coverage for an area roughly the size of Switzerland. The balloons that were deployed in Peru, in fact, were launched from Puerto Rico.
However, restoring communications to Puerto Rico may be more challenging. Loon requires local partners to work, and in the case of the Peru project, relationships with wireless providers and other players were already in place. But in earlier statements to Mashable, a Loon spokesman said the Puerto Rico effort would be “a little more complicated because we’re starting from scratch.”
Contracting with governments for deployment in disaster zones could eventually become a revenue stream for Loon, which debuted in 2013. Alphabet has begun ramping up pressure for moonshots to generate revenue, partly in hopes of diversifying beyond the search-driven advertising business that still makes up the overwhelming majority of its profits.