The U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has approved an application from Google’s parent company Alphabet to use experimental high-altitude balloons to provide cell and internet coverage in Puerto Rico.
The license extends from October 6th until April 4th, 2018, and it was granted to Ben Wojtowicz, a software engineer at Alphabet’s X lab. It says the “purpose of the [Special Temporary Authority] is to support licensed mobile carriers’ restoration of limited communications capability in areas of Puerto Rico and the United States Virgin Islands affected by Hurricanes Irma and Maria.”
Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico on the 20th of September. It’s the strongest hurricane to make landfall in Puerto Rico since 1928. It destroyed the island's power grid, leaving all 3.4 million residents without electricity. The FCC said on Friday that 83 percent of cell sites remain out of service. While Puerto Rican officials say only 40% of people on the island have wifi, cell service or internet access.
Alphabet announced its Project Loon in 2013, with the mission of providing Internet access to rural and remote areas. The project uses high-altitude balloons placed in the stratosphere at an altitude of about 18 km (11 mi) to create an aerial wireless network with up to 4G-LTE speeds.
According to the company’s website, “We have flown over 19 million km of test flights to date since the project began - with one of our record-breaking balloons surviving for 190 days aloft in the stratosphere.”
In a statement given to Engadget, a spokesman for Alphabet explained that the next step is to integrate with a telco partner's network, which it's "making solid progress on."
“We're grateful for the support of the FCC and the Puerto Rican authorities as we work hard to see if it's possible to use Loon balloons to bring emergency connectivity to the island during this time of need. To deliver signal to people's devices, Loon needs be integrated with a telco partner's network — the balloons can't do it alone. We've been making solid progress on this next step and would like to thank everyone who's been lending a hand.”
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