Just a few weeks ago Puerto Rico was struck a heavy blow by Hurricane Irma, swiftly followed by a sucker punch from Hurricane Maria. Along with leaving millions of people without food or water, the devastating storms disabled up to 82 percent of their cell towers, meaning much of the island is still cut off from the outside world and each other.
One of the most novel attempts to provide a helping hand is coming from the company X, who want to launch a series of balloons to restore communications to the island as part of Project Loon.
Their tennis-court sized polyethylene balloons are effectively just floating cell towers. They are floated up to around 20 kilometers (65,600 feet) into Earth’s stratosphere simply using helium, where they can beam down emergency cellular LTE service to an area of 5,000 square kilometers (1,930 square miles) below.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) approved an “experimental license” on Friday for Project Loon, led by Google's parent company Alphabet, to fly their balloons over Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands for up to six months.
“More than two weeks after Hurricane Maria struck, millions of Puerto Ricans are still without access to much-needed communications services. That’s why we need to take innovative approaches to help restore connectivity on the island. Project Loon is one such approach,” said LCC Chairman Ajit Varadaraj Pai.
“It could help provide the people of Puerto Rico with access to cellular service to connect with loved ones and access life-saving information,” he added.
That’s the first step at least but there’s still much more work to be done as Project Loon has to hook up with a local telecom partner to finish up. "We’re grateful for the support of the FCC and the Puerto Rican authorities as we work hard to see if it’s possible to use Loon balloons to bring emergency connectivity to the island during this time of need. To deliver signal to people’s devices, Loon needs be integrated with a telco partner’s network — the balloons can’t do it alone," Libby Leahy, X spokesperson, said in an emailed statement.
"We’ve been making solid progress on this next step and would like to thank everyone who’s been lending a hand."
Facebook has made a similar pledge to restore connectivity to the area. Two weeks ago, Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg posted saying: “We're working to get Puerto Rico back online. We're sending the Facebook connectivity team to deliver emergency telecommunications assistance to get the systems up and running.” However, since this post, news about any development on the pledge has been pretty thin.
Elon Musk has also thrown his hat in the ring as go-to savior, offering to help rebuild Peurto Rico's power grid using renewable energy.
Project Loon has previously used its Wi-Fi balloon technology to reconnect in the wake of extreme rains and flooding in Peru earlier this year. Beyond providing emergency relief, they also have high ambitions to help connect rural and remote corners of the world without an Internet connectivity.