Google to Restore Cell Coverage in Puerto Rico Using Balloons

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Classified as the tenth strongest Atlantic hurricane on record, Hurricane Maria left a trail of destruction across the Caribbean. Puerto Rico, however, suffered the blunt of the storm’s impact, with damage costs totaling over $8 billion. After three weeks, 78 percent of the island’s countries still suffer from telecommunications outages.

But Google has a bold plan to restore cell coverage to the storm-ravaged island. According to ZDNet, Google has been given the green light by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to test experimental balloons over Puerto Rico.

The temporary license allows Google to fly network-pulsing balloons over Puerto Rico until April 4, 2018. Once airborne, the balloons will provide cellular coverage to nearby residents and stranded travelers using the 900 MHz frequency band. This isn’t a permanent solution, however. It’s only intended to provide temporary cell coverage to those affected by Maria.

The balloons themselves are made of heavy-duty polyethylene plastic, but they are only about 0.0030 inches thick. In terms of size, they are approximately 49 feet wide and 39 feet tall when fully inflated with helium.

With the exception of San Juan, Bayamon, Carolina, Guaynabo and Catano, all counties on the island have less than 25 percent cell coverage. Without cell coverage, residents and travelers can’t call their loved ones or request medical assistance. Underneath each balloon is a box containing all of the radio antennas and circuity needed to deliver the cell coverage.

Google has actually been working on high-altitude balloons for quite some time. In 2011, the search engine giant began Project Loon, which was intended to send space station components into orbit using balloons. Since then, Google has begun using the balloons for other purposes, including weather monitoring as well as the delivery of wireless broadband service. Google has even expressed interest in using the balloons to deliver Internet service to rural areas in the United States.

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