Alphabet Uses Balloons to Help In Hurricane Recovery

Alphabet, the parent of Google, has long been experimenting with using balloons at high altitude as one of its “moonshot” projects under its X subsidiary. The balloons can serve several purposes, including working as installation delivery mechanisms for rural and far-flung areas.

Restoring wireless, power, and other services to hard-hit Puerto Rico will take considerable time.

“Moonshots” are innovative projects designed to use creative problem-solving to meet global challenges. As business strategies, moonshots are one method of diversifying Alphabet’s revenues from Google’s search engine, which still provides the vast majority of its profits.

Balloons to Help Restore Wireless Service in Puerto Rico

Well, at least one moonshot is paying off by being helpful. Fortune reports that Alphabet recently got the go-ahead from the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to use balloons to aid in establishing wireless service after Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico.

The FCC’s approval gives Alphabet’s balloons, dubbed Project Loon, a license to try and re-install wireless service in the U.S. territory. them to re-install wireless service in Puerto Rico. The hurricane knocked out much communication on the island. Wireless is especially needed as families try to communicate with each other and vital safety and health communication can be transmitted via wireless.

Several weeks after the hurricane hit, over 80% of the cell towers on Puerto Rico are still out of commission. The FCC estimates that approximately 33% of the island has no wireless service, meaning cell phones and wireless computing is not possible there.

Officials acknowledge that the balloons cannot do the job alone. They have to connect with local telecommunications companies for service to be fully restored, and it is not clear whether the final connections will meet challenges.

But it is clear that the cell towers knocked out by the storm will not be replaced soon by conventional methods, either. First, the cost of entirely rebuilding the island’s cell towers is immense, and that is what needs to be done. Second, several telecommunications companies believe they would face theft and other crimes in their operations on the ground – ultimately lengthening the time to construction and increasing the cost.

Proven in Some Disaster Situations

Enter Alphabet’s Project Loon balloons. The balloons, something like airborne collapsible pontoon bridges, rise 20 kilometers from the earth. They are outfitted with communications equipment, which is used to restore wireless and other services.

The balloons have considerable potential in areas where people and more conventional means of transportation, such as trucks and vans, cannot easily go.

Recently, for example, Loon balloons were deployed in Peru after torrential floods to establish internet and LTE services. In that case, however, it was able to establish relationships with local wireless providers and related companies prior to launch.

Still, coming to the rescue after natural or other disasters could end up being a promising revenue stream for Alphabet, and a successful conclusion to one of its moonshots.