Emergent Tech

FCC gives Google's broadband balloons 'experimental license' in Puerto Rico

Project Loon gets its chance to beam relief broadband

By Simon Sharwood

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Alphabet's Project Loon broadband balloons will be allowed to attempt broadband services in Puerto Rico, as the unincorporated United States territory continues to recover from hurricane damage.

Project Loon uses balloons that reach around 65,000 feet above sea level, from where they beam LTE signals back to Earth. The balloons are solar-powered and can stay aloft for up to 100 days at a time.

The project's been tested in Chile and New Zealand, with mixed results. That's not stopped other locales asking for their turn, among them Goa in India and Sri Lanka.

Now the United States' Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has given the project an “experimental license” to “help provide emergency cellular service in Puerto Rico.”

“More than two weeks after Hurricane Maria struck, millions of Puerto Ricans are still without access to much-needed communications services,” said FCC Chair Ajit Pai. “That’s why we need to take innovative approaches to help restore connectivity on the island. Project Loon is one such approach.”

“I urge wireless carriers to cooperate with Project Loon to maximize this effort’s chances of success.”

The FCC has already waived regulations for infrastructure like masts and towers, to ensure that red tape doesn't get in the way of restoring telecoms services on the island. Letting Loon loose on the island is therefore not unexpected.

Alphabet's various sites and social feeds are silent on the licence or how Loon might deliver. But it has its work cut out, as The Register understands local carriers have not had much if anything to do with the project and would therefore need to get up to speed in a hurry.

On the upside, Project Loon conducted tests in Puerto Rico in 2016 and FlightRadar 24 plots a Loon balloon over the island. ®

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