November 24, 2017
Since Hurricane Maria, disaster relief organizations have been scrambling to rebuild Puerto Rico. Tech companies have even stepped up to try and restore internet connectivity to the island, but perhaps the most innovative initiative goes to Google’s parent company, Alphabet. It’s called Project Loon, and it uses helium balloons to relay internet service.
Initially developed as a means of providing internet access to sparsely populated or remote areas, Project Loon aims to use high flying balloons to transmit internet connectivity to places where cell towers are unworkable.
The helium-filled balloons are launched from specifically-designed launching stations, and using helium, the balloons float up into the stratosphere at an altitude of 65,000 feet. That is twice the height air planes usually travel. From that height, they can ensure they stay clear of other aircraft while also extending their effective range. The balloons then travel to their destinations in a rather unexpected manner. They navigate to the nearest air stream and ride the wind to their approximate destination.
The balloons all carry a transmitter not too dissimilar to a wireless access port. Ground stations located near the intended destination then relay data up to the balloons who reflect it down to the ground providing internet access to users.
Loon and Puerto Rico
Google received a license from the FCC to deploy Project Loon to benefit the people of Puerto Rico and parts of the Virgin Islands. The balloons are intended to provide LTE cell receptions to both governments and residents alike. This will serve the dual purpose of facilitating the coordination of recovery efforts, it will also reconnect the people of Puerto Rico with their loved ones abroad.
In an interview with Engadget, Alastair Westgarth, the head of Project Loon, touched on this need for connectivity with friends and family.
“In times of crisis, being able to communicate with loved ones, emergency services, and critical information is key. We hope that the connectivity Project Loon has provided over the last few weeks has been helpful, and would like to thank AT&T, T-Mobile, and our government partners who made these efforts possible.”
The balloons launched all the way from Winnemucca, Nevada, and the balloons were able to provide internet connectivity to a significant portion of the Puerto Rico. Alphabet will be able to provide this connectivity until April 4, 2018.
Internet Connectivity in Remote Areas
Normally, cell towers are a superior choice for internet connectivity, but in remote areas with a small population, it can become too expensive to deploy and maintain these towers. For these regions, an alternative needs to be developed.
Elon Musk and other technologists have a plan in development to launch 4,000 low orbit satellites to essentially accomplish the same goals. While Project Loon seems to be useful at this time for specific short-term situations. Musk’s plan would have more longevity. These satellites would provide WiFi access to the world.
Of course, the satellite project is not near completion. Conservative estimates place it at five years out, and they have yet to launch prototypes into space for trials. Until then, and even perhaps afterward, Project Loon is the frontrunner in this space.
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