Alphabet Gets Approval for Giant Balloons to Restore Puerto Rico's Wireless Service -- Update

By John D. McKinnon and Drew FitzGerald Features Dow Jones Newswires

Aiming to restore wireless phone service to hurricane-battered Puerto Rico, the Federal Communications Commission on Friday night granted an experimental license for Alphabet Inc.'s Project Loon to create a network of balloons that could provide connectivity.

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Before it can initiate service, though, Loon has to clear a few more hurdles, officials said -- notably, finding a wireless carrier to serve as its partner.

Libby Leahy, a spokeswoman for X, the Alphabet unit that oversees Project Loon, said in a statement that Loon "needs to be integrated with a telco partner's [cellular] network -- the balloons can't do it alone." She added that "we've been making solid progress" on that next step.

It remained unclear when Loon might be able to start providing service.

Loon's networks of balloons appeared to work well earlier this year when parts of Peru suffered severe flooding. But Loon already had been working on network integration with a carrier there, Telefonica.

Project Loon said the effort in Peru marked the first time that an internet system using balloons had connected tens of thousands of people.

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In the case of Puerto Rico, AT&T Inc. and T-Mobile handsets should be able to operate on the frequencies covered by the experimental license, according to people familiar with the matter. However, it's possible some would need a software update, which might have to be delivered over the air in Puerto Rico.

A T-Mobile spokeswoman declined to comment on the experiment. A Sprint spokesman said the carrier is in touch with Alphabet and exploring the idea

"More than two weeks after Hurricane Maria struck, millions of Puerto Ricans are still without access to much-needed communications services," FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said in a statement Saturday. "That's why we need to take innovative approaches to help restore connectivity on the island. Project Loon is one such approach."

Mr. Pai urged wireless carriers to cooperate with Project Loon "to maximize this effort's chances of success."

Loon was developed at X, Alphabet's innovation lab. Alphabet also is the parent of search engine Google.

A spokeswoman for Claro, a major wireless and land-line network operator on Puerto Rico, said Google approached the company to ask about a cellular frequency that Claro doesn't use.

AT&T has started using satellite links to carry millions of phone calls and text messages from clusters of temporary cellular radios to the mainland, a spokesman said.

"This is a temporary fix while we work on laying and splicing miles of fiber, but it will help our customers stay connected with family and friends," he said.

Facebook Inc. also has sought to help, sending a connectivity team to Puerto Rico, according to a recent update by founder Mark Zuckerberg.

The FCC's Mr. Pai has taken several other steps to address hurricane-related damage, including providing up to some $77 million in federal Universal Service Fund money to restore services in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

--Jack Nicas contributed to this article.

Write to John D. McKinnon at john.mckinnon@wsj.com and Drew FitzGerald at andrew.fitzgerald@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

October 07, 2017 18:33 ET (22:33 GMT)