Over half of the citizens of the world do not have access to the internet, isolating them from family members and various services. One of Google’s companies, Alphabet X, is working on bringing the internet to billions of people using balloons. The name of the venture is Project Loon, and will be possible by sending solar powered balloons to an altitude of 20km. The balloons will be connected to telecom stations at ground level, and use them to provide high speed internet to areas that are not covered by cell phone towers. The signals are transferred from the company on the ground to the network of balloons in the air, which emits them back to the users.
The Project Loon balloons will be equipped with sensors that monitor the environment, and they have already passed through over 19 million km of test flights. One balloon survived for 190 days in the stratosphere, and Alphabet X aims to have the entire network up to this standard before long. Data transmissions on the network can currently occur between balloons that are over 100km apart.
After the damage that Hurricane Maria did to Puerto Rico, Google has applied for and received a license from the FCC to position balloons over parts of the country. They will remain in place until April 4, 2018, and provide a way for residents to contact family and friends. The balloons will also help the government to manage relief efforts, and conduct official business.
This is Project Loom’s first time in Puerto Rico, and they have yet to establish an official partnership with a telecom company in the country. A partnership is the only way in which the balloons can restore the cellphone signals, and Google continues to focus the company’s efforts on making this happen. Puerto Rico’s infrastructure was badly damaged during the hurricane and 90% of the country is still without power, while 75% of cell phone towers remain down.
Google has previously used the same system to help disaster victims, after extreme flooding wiped out power in Peru. The balloons were able to provide emergency coverage, which was a simpler task than in Puerto Rico, as the company had already partnered with a local network provider. This meant that the infrastructure to send and receive signals had already been put in place. The balloon network in Peru was set up at 65,000 feet above ground level, and covered an area the size of Sweden. During the emergency, the network sent 160 GB of data which was enough to receive 30 million WhatsApp messages or 2 million emails.