More than 100,000 people in Puerto Rico have been reconnected to the internet by helium balloons, Alphabet’s Project Loon has announced.
Widespread internet outages have persisted across Puerto Rico and other areas affected by Hurricane Maria in September. Although most of Puerto Rico’s electrical and internet infrastructure were knocked offline, Project Loon balloons were able to connect with working network resources on the ground to extend LTE coverage to a significant portion of the island.
“In times of crisis, being able to communicate with loved ones, emergency services, and critical information is key,” Project Loon head Alastair Westgarth told Engadget. “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.”
Alphabet launched its balloons from Winnemucca, Nevada, and for the first time is using algorithms powered by machine learning to keep them above Puerto Rico, according to a blog post. Project Loon previously provided coverage to parts of Peru early this year following disastrous flooding, but had an existing partnership with a local telecom provider to draw on, and the Puerto Rico effort is the project’s fastest ever deployment from scratch.
In addition to Alphabet’s efforts, AT&T supplied drones known as “Flying COWs” (for Cell on Wing) to restore wireless coverage in the territory.
Alphabet received a license to proceed with plans to provide LTE coverage to Puerto Rico and parts of the US Virgin Islands from the FCC in October. The license expires on Apr. 4, 2018.
Alphabet executives said in February they had found a way to run the program with fewer balloons, accelerating its path to commercial operation.