Google’s Sister Company Wants to Fly Its Massive Balloons Over Puerto Rico to Restore Internet

More than 80 percent of people on the island don’t have access to wireless cell service.

A Loon balloon.

Jon Shenk/Project Loon

More than 90 percent of people on the island of Puerto Rico don’t have power, and more than 80 percent don’t have access to wireless cell service, according to the most recent advisories from FEMA and the Federal Communications Commission. Without access to reliable power or communications networks, it’s extremely difficult to search for loved ones and distribute critical information about recovery efforts to those on the ground. And at a time when only 55 percent of residents have access to drinking water, getting out information about where to go to find resources can save lives.

And now, executives and engineers in Silicon Valley think they may have some solutions.

On Friday, the FCC gave Alphabet, Google’s parent company, permission to launch its internet balloon project over Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Dubbed Project Loon, the idea is that by flying massive balloons over the islands, Loon will beam down emergency internet service and help get people back online. Loon has permission to fly 30 of its balloons for up to six months over the affected areas.

Last week, Loon tweeted that it is “exploring if it’s possible to bring emergency connectivity to Puerto Rico.” That sparked the attention of journalist Mark Harris, who spotted that Loon filed its application with the FCC on Friday to deploy emergency voice and data coverage through local carriers to reconnect cell phones. The FCC approved the application the same day. Eight local carriers agreed to let Loon use their frequencies to revive connectivity during the recovery effort. The idea, as Harris wrote in Wired, is for Alphabet to set up base stations that will connect to the wireless networks that are still standing. Those will link to balloons flying nearly 13 miles above the Earth, from which cell service will be broadcast down to the islands.

According to Loon, each one of its balloons can provide service for about 3,000 square miles, so the fleet should be able to provide coverage for the entire island. It’s not clear that Loon’s connectivity will be compatible with all devices, though, and the company may have to provide an over-the-air software update to Apple and Samsung phones to make sure that they are compatible with the network.

It’s also not clear when the balloons will take off, or if the project will flop before it’s even deployed. But looking at how fast the Loon team got agreements from cell carriers and FCC approval, it seems everyone is working in high gear to make this a reality. Earlier this spring, Loon flew over Peru to provide basic internet connectivity to tens of thousands of people following the extreme flooding there.

Google’s sister company isn’t the only crew from Silicon Valley trying to help the devastated islands. On Thursday, Tesla CEO and serial entrepreneur Elon Musk tweeted that he may be able help to rebuild Puerto Rico’s ravaged electrical infrastructure.

Puerto Rico Gov. Ricardo Rosselló responded that he was very open to the idea. Tesla has, after all, already shipped hundreds of its battery systems that can be paired with solar panels to the island to help restore power, and employees from the car company are in Puerto Rico to work on installing them in partnership with local organizations there.

Typically, it makes sense to be skeptical of Silicon Valley’s doe-eyed tech-solutionism, but in this case, Puerto Rico needs all the help it can get. Gov. Rosselló said at a press conference on Tuesday that people aren’t getting the deliveries of food and water that are being distributed across the island, Mother Jones reported. “Now, it could be for a whole host of reasons,” he said. “One of them could be that they couldn’t hear it, the information didn’t get to them.”