FCC licenses Alphabet to supply cell service to Puerto Rico


Regulators have approved Google's application to provide emergency cell phone services to Puerto Rico using balloons in the wake of Hurriane Maria.

According to TechCrunch, the FCC has given the Alphabet-owned Project Loon an experimental license to help the people of Puerto Rico and US Virgin Islands regain connectivity. Now it is two weeks after Hurricane Maria, and substantial amounts of vital infrastructure around the country are still unusable, meaning that re-establishing cellular connections has been slow and as many as 83 percent of the population still aren't able to access mobile services.

Pai said on Friday he was launching a Hurricane Recovery Task Force focused on providing aid to Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. The balloons, recently deployed in Peru for the same goal, were developed by Loon, an Alphabet subsidiary and sister company to Google.

Earlier this year, Project Loon was used to provide basic Internet service to tens of thousands of people in Peru, which was in a state of emergency after extreme rain and flooding.

Google started testing its Project Loon, which sends transmitters in balloons that are high-altitude to give large rural areas low-priced broadband. They are made from a polyethylene canvas the size of a tennis court.

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This special license, which is just temporary, is needed to support the licensed mobile carriers' restoration of limited capability of communications in areas of the island and in some of the U.S. Virgin Islands that were affected by hurricanes.

Another potential hiccup in rolling out LTE via Loon balloons high in the sky is that some phones might need to be updated to allow them to operate on Band 8, which is required for Loon. Who better to come to the rescue of Puerto Ricans than electric auto maker Tesla CEO Elon Musk. It's unclear if Puerto Rico's stressed telecom companies even have the resources to partner with Google on this endeavor. Thanks to the Federal Aviation Administration, who recently extended our launch hours in Puerto Rico, we were able to increase our balloon launch rate by 40%.

The FCC announcement came from Matthew Berry, chief of staff to the agency's chairman, Ajit Pai, on Twitter. To deliver signal to people's devices, Loon needs to be integrated with a telco partner's network - the balloons can't do it alone.

Of course, none of this would be possible without agents working from the ground, which makes the Puerto Rico situation all the more troublesome.