Project Loon balloons bring digital relief to Puerto Rico

stratospheric balloon - not loon balloons

Solar powered stratospheric balloons have launched to bring internet and cellular service to the island’s remote areas.

Alphabet Inc., Google’s parent company, launched its Project Loon balloons to deliver digital services to remote areas of Puerto Rico. The unincorporated American territory’s rural cell phone towers were destroyed by Hurricane Maria, cutting off all service.

The stratospheric balloons are able to reconnect locals to the internet and provide cellular service again.

Two of the Project Loon balloons have already be launched over Puerto Rico. This makes it possible for locals to finally regain access to talk, text, email and basic web use. The wireless services use 4G LTE network and are available to AT&T customers with handsets compatible with that network.

The two balloons are known as HBAL199 and HBAL237. Once they reached their full altitude, they have been flying over 60,000 feet above the island. They use a specific algorithm to navigate the area in order to provide the strongest possible signal. The algorithm causes the balloons to rise and fall in order to piggyback on wind currents.

The Loon balloons are powered via solar panels and provide internet and cellular service only during the daytime.

stratospheric balloon - not loon balloonsThe two balloons are only the first of several that will be launched in Puerto Rico. Alphabet is bringing in a number of additional other stratospheric balloons from Nevada. The project has received Federal Communications Commission authorization for up to 30 balloons.

The goal is to offer assistance to the devastated island that continues to need help to recover from the catastrophic storm that struck on September 20. This, according to Alphabet’s X spokesperson, Libby Leahy. The X division is the part of the company responsible for future tech.

Head of Project Loon, Alastair Westgarth wrote a blog post saying that the Loon balloons remain “an experimental technology and we’re not quite sure how well it will work.” That said, Puerto Rico is not the first test for this mobile technology. It was also tried last year in Peru when the country experienced damaging flooding. At the moment, fewer than one in five residents of Puerto Rico have electricity and only half the territory’s cell phone towers are functioning.

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