The FCC board has given permission to Alphabet, Inc., Google’s parent company, to aid Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands with hurricane relief. The battered islands are still cut off from communications and network.
According to a report by FEMA and the FCC, 83% of people still lack cell reception, and more than 90% still don’t have power. Without basic communications access, people are unable to find their loved ones or connect with important news related to recovery efforts. Drinking water is also a challenge, as only 55% of residents have access to it, and they are unable to receive information on the location of clean water resources.
“More than two weeks after Hurricane Maria struck, millions of Puerto Ricans are still without access to much-needed communications services,” said FCC Chairman Ajit Pai. “That’s why we need to take innovative approaches to help restore connectivity on the island.”
At this critical time, a lot of issues could be resolved once the communication channels are restored.
Alphabet’s project Loon was announced in 2013. This project was developed with a mission to provide Internet access to rural and remote areas. Balloons are filled with lighter-than-air gas and released 20 kilometers (12.42 miles) into the stratosphere. Loon balloons float twice as high airplanes. The balloons sail the wind by moving up or down into different wind currents, traveling in different directions, eventually joining other balloons in small teams over areas where connectivity is required. Ground stations connected to local service providers send signals up to the balloons and then back to the ground, covering a large area and allowing people to connect to Internet.
Libby Leahy, a company spokesperson, provided us with the following statement. “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.”
Loon has been given permission to fly 30 balloons for up to six months in the affected areas. Each of its balloons can provide service for about 3,000 square miles. According to journalist Mark Harris, Alphabet will set up base stations that connect to wireless stations. Those will link to the balloons which would be flying over the no network areas to broadcast cellular service.
In this time of hardship for Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, Google isn’t the only company taking steps towards rescue effort. Tesla CEO Elon Musk has also announced his intention to help rebuild the devastated electrical Infrastructure of Puerto Rico.