Puerto Rico is in trouble. Approximately 3 million of its residents are still without electricity after the island was devastated by Hurricane Maria, and 30% lack access to drinkable water. Exacerbating the process of recovery is the fact that communication infrastructure in general, and the internet specifically, is experiencing trouble across the U.S. territory.
Enter Alphabet’s Project Loon, which on October 20 announced that it had officially switched on its balloon-powered internet for some Puerto Rican residents. That’s right giant balloons are providing digital connectivity for some people who might otherwise go without.
“Working with AT&T, Project Loon is now supporting basic communication and internet activities like sending text messages and accessing information online for some people with LTE enabled phones,” explains the company in a blog post. “This is the first time we have used our new machine learning powered algorithms to keep balloons clustered over Puerto Rico, so we’re still learning how best to do this. As we get more familiar with the constantly shifting winds in this region, we hope to keep the balloons over areas where connectivity is needed for as long as possible.”
The balloons, which are now being deployed in a post-disaster setting for the second time, typically stay in the stratosphere for 100 days. They work by relaying signals from ground stations to people out of the reach of cell towers. With the use of an LTE mobile phone, people in affected areas can use that signal to connect to the internet — communicating with loved ones and getting much needed information in the process.
“Project Loon is still an experimental technology and we’re not quite sure how well it will work, but we hope it helps get people the information and communication they need to get through this unimaginably difficult time,” the company explained.
While Project Loon is far from perfect, how well it performs (or doesn’t) in Puerto Rico may be a sign of things to come. In the future, post disaster internet may be a thing we all take for granted — even if clean drinking water still isn’t.