Balloons, Buzz, disaster relief, Facebook, streaming, Tech

Why Google’s Project Loon balloons can’t help Puerto Rico (yet)


Hurricane Maria demolished Puerto Rico’s brittle electrical grid in one slash across the island. In doing so, it also took the broadband infrastructure with it. A fix could soon be high-altitude concepts for beaming internet to disaster-stricken areas from the sky, but innovations like that (such as Google’s Project Loon) are still in their R&D phase, and not yet ready to be deployed.

For the uninitiated, Project Loon involves balloons that sail through brisk winds at some 65,000 feet of altitude. Dangling from these balloons are receivers that are capable of streaming internet to and from phones on the ground below.

Although the internet-beaming balloons have yet to be deployed in Puerto Rico, Google X (the secretive skunkworks) is considering the option:

“We’re working hard with the Puerto Rican authorities to see if there’s a way for us to use Loon balloons to bring some emergency connectivity to the island during this time of need,” a Google X spokesperson said in a statement sent to Mashable.

Project Loon seems like a particularly encouraging solution because this balloon technology was successfully deployed when extreme flooding knocked out communications in Peru, back in May. The circumstances between Peru and Puerto Rico, however, are far different. Before the floods hit, Project Loon was already testing for connectivity with a Peruvian telecommunication company, Telefonica.

“We were able to connect people in Peru quickly because we were already working closely with Telefonica on some testing; in this case, things are a little more complicated because we’re starting from scratch,” Google X told Mashable

In Peru, Project Loon was able to send “teams of balloons” to the communication-less areas. The emergency experiment worked: The head of project Loon, Alastair Westgarth, wrote that tens of thousands of Peruvians were provided internet.

“More than 160 GB of data has been sent to people over a combined area of 40,000km2 — that’s roughly the size of Switzerland — and enough data to send and receive around 30 million WhatsApp messages, or 2 million emails,” wrote Westgarth.

A Project Loon balloon revealed at the project’s Google X launch event.

Just like in Peru, Project Loon can’t simply send high-altitude balloons to the region without first establishing a connection to telecommunication providers. “In order to deliver a signal to people’s devices, Loon needs be integrated with a telco partner’s network — the balloons can’t do it alone,” a Google X spokesperson told Mashable.

Google isn’t the only company with these high-flying internet ambitions. Facebook isn’t in the balloon business, but is currently testing its internet-streaming Aquila drone. It’s a massive unmanned plane with a wingspan greater than a Boeing 737. It’s designed to fly at 60,000 feet, and in May Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg wrote these solar-powered drones “will beam internet to remote parts of the world and eventually break the record for longest unmanned aircraft flight.”

The Google X balloons, however, seem significantly further along in development, so there’s potential — however small — that Project Loon balloons could be deployed in hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico. 

“We’re sorting through a lot of possible options now and are grateful for the support we’re getting on the ground,” said Google X in a statement sent to Mashable. And while Puerto Rico is still reeling, it might take more than internet balloons to help—at least for now.

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