After facing the devastation of Hurricane Irma only two weeks prior, few expected the carnage wrought on Puerto Rico by Hurricane Maria. The storm left much of the island flooded and without electricity or potable water. Though nearly two months have passed since Maria first made landfall, a quarter of Puerto Rico struggles without telecommunications, as the storm ravaged most of the United States’ territory’s infrastructure. In an attempt to connect survivors back to the rest of the globe, Google launched a project to restore internet connectivity to the island, and while there’s a long way to go, the endeavour has so far been a success.
Google’s Project Loon began as a research and development project under X, a somewhat secretive facility founded by Google in 2010 and now operated under their Alphabet Inc umbrella. Alphabet itself was established in 2015 after Google underwent some corporate restructuring to both streamline and improve accountability for their holdings. Project Loon’s main focus is to find solutions for bringing internet access to remote areas and to connect the near 5-billion people globally who still do not have internet access to the rest of the world. The project is similar to the aspirations of tech guru Elon Musk’s more ambitious SpaceX satellite constellation, a plan to provide global internet access through space-based infrastructure.
Seeing the potential for their project to reconnect areas of Puerto Rico that had effectively gone dark, Google propositioned and received FCC permission test the fruits of Project Loon over Puerto Rico. The system works through the use of high altitude balloons ,which are set aloft into the stratosphere, equipped with directional antennas that project an LTE signal. LTE is a popular, high speed wireless communication method popular with mobile devices.
While Google had done some limited tests of the tech above New Zealand, the recovery effort in Puerto Rico gave them the perfect opportunity for wide scale implementation of their so-called “Balloon Internet.” Overall, Project Loon has proved a resounding success. Since its implementation, the ambitious project has returned internet access to over 100,000 people across Puerto Rico, enabling them to reconnect with loved ones, follow news on disaster relief efforts, and other vital communication. While it isn’t a permanent measure by far, the project’s success has not only offered temporary support until Puerto Rico’s infrastructure is fully restored, but also proven itself as a viable method of providing internet access to disaster areas and remote locations, at least in the short term.