AT&T, Project Loon, Bring Wireless to Maria-Hit Islands


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A Loon balloon getting ready to take flight to Puerto Rico from the Project Loon launch site in Nevada

Project Loon is now up and running in Puerto Rico, supporting basic communication and some internet connectivity. Google’s been working with AT&T, the Government of Puerto Rico, the FCC, FAA, FEMA, spectrum partners and international aviation authorities to make it happen. Residents with LTE-enabled phones can send and receive text messages and access information online, according to Alastair Westgarth, head of Project Loon. It’s the first time the technology has been deployed quickly.

“This is the first time we have used our new … algorithms to keep balloons clustered over Puerto Rico, so we’re still learning how best to do this,” said Westgarth in a blog post. “As we get more familiar with the constantly shifting winds in this region, we hope to keep the balloons over areas where connectivity is needed for as long as possible.”

The project takes “the most essential components of a cell tower and redesigned them to be light enough and durable enough to be carried by a balloon 20 km up into the stratosphere,” Google states on its website. It’s meant to provide basic communications during the day.   

The balloons launch from Nevada, and the Pan-American and Puerto Rican government’s aviation authorities and air traffic controllers help them get to their destination. SES Networks and Liberty Cablevision helped set up ground infrastructure so the balloons can get internet connectivity. AT&T is Loon’s telco integrator partner.

In addition to Project Loon, AT&T is also working with Vanu, which has three satellite-based cell sites up and running in Puerto Rico and 30 more to be set-up. Nine cell sites also arrived in the U.S. Virgin Islands so far, according to the carrier.

“Wireless companies have opened up roaming on the islands so that they, collectively, can serve the maximum population of the islands with the current coverage available,” states the FCC in its Disaster Information Reporting System. “They are coordinating and prioritizing the recovery of cell sites and placement of temporary assets with the other carriers to maximize the coverage for all subscribers.” Combined, carriers reported to the agency about 63 percent of the population in Puerto Rico and 91 percent of the population in the USVI have wireless service. Overall, 66.6 percent of cell sites in Puerto Rico and 52.1 percent in USVI were out of service as of October 22, according to the FCC.

October 24, 2017   

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