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Project Loon Starts to Deliver Internet Access to People in Puerto Rico

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Last month, we wrote an article about Alphabet’s Project Loon.  In that post, we talked about how Alphabet was partnering with AT&T and T-Mobile in order to bring LTE to Puerto Rico.  And now, its helium air balloons have delivered internet to 100,000 residents on the island.  Which is still something I am having a hard time wrapping my brain around.  Hot air balloons are delivering internet?  It’s so complicated and yet so simple at the same time.  A significant portion of Puerto Rico, however, is still without cell tower reception.  The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) reported that nearly 44% of Puerto Rico cell sites are still out of service.  Loon deployed balloons in late October in what was the fastest ever deployment.  This was in an effort to help residents get back online as soon as possible.

If you think about it – this is the only way they are able to communicate with friends and family outside of the island.  They may have been able to get in touch with people to tell them that they were ok, but they haven’t been able to communicate otherwise.

Alastair Westgarth, a project lead on Loon made the following statement:

“In times of crisis, being able to communicate with loved ones, emergency services and critical information is key. We hope that the connectivity Project Loon has provided over the last few weeks has been helpful, and would like to thank AT&T, T-Mobile, and our government partners who made these efforts possible.”

Getting communication to 100,000 people is pretty impressive on its own, but you have to remember that Puerto Rico is an island of nearly 3.5 million people.  Which means that’s not a very good metric.  Only four counties are reporting that 1 to 20 percent of all sites are out of service, while another four counties have more than 80 percent of their cell sites down.  So it’s very sporadic in terms of whats working and what’s not.

The FCC had granted Project Loon an experimental license last month to help get the island back online after Hurricane Maria decimated the island’s infrastructure.  What’s interesting is that Project Loon had originally tweeted that they would “explore if it was possible to help”, and now they are knee deep in the project.  Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s amazing what they’ve been able to do.  But it just seems odd that they weren’t fully committed from the beginning. Doesn’t it?

Were there technological barriers that they aren’t talking about?  The entire idea of being able to get internet access due to hot air balloons is kind of out there.  Out there in a good way as I think this will be helpful for developing countries that don’t have existing infrastructure.  Some might argue that water is more important than internet access.  But you never know what will come from that internet access.  Perhaps someone will figure out a new and innovative way to do something that will help the island in their time of crisis.  The bottom line is that these people need to be able to communicate with their loved ones, emergency services need to communicate, so access to the internet is critical.

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