Google Using O3b Satellites to Connect Project Loon Over Puerto Rico

Google Project Loon balloon
One of Google's Project Loon balloons floating from Nevada to Puerto Rico. (Image credit: Google)

WASHINGTON — Google's experimental high-altitude balloon project is using connectivity from O3b satellites to provide emergency communications in hurricane-ravished Puerto Rico.

O3b owner SES said Oct. 23 that it is providing satellite capacity and a "rapidly deployable" O3b FastConnect terminal in order to connect Google Loons over Puerto Rico to the internet, which then beam 4G/LTE mobile connectivity to people on the ground.

The majority of Puerto Rico's cellphone towers were damaged or destroyed by Hurricane Maria, which struck the U.S. island as a Category 4 storm Sept. 20. The U.S. Federal Communications Commission tallied 95.2 percent of cell sites across the island were knocked out by the storm. [Hurricane Maria Photos from Space]

Google received permission from the FCC on Oct. 7 for the Loon trial run. At the time, 81.9 percent of cell towers on the island were still offline. The FCC's most recent status report, released Oct. 22, said 66.6 percent of cell sites remain down.

In an interview with SpaceNews Oct. 23, SES Networks CEO Steve Collar said Puerto Rico is the satellite operator's second time working with Google Loon, the first being in March following flooding in Peru.

"Our target as SES Networks is to have somewhere between half a gig[abit per second link] and a gig[-abit per second link] of connectivity available anywhere in the world within 24 to 48 hours," he said.

Alastair Westgarth, head of Project Loon, wrote in an Oct. 20 blog post that Loon is working with AT&T to enable texting and internet access in Puerto Rico.

"We've never deployed Project Loon connectivity from scratch at such a rapid pace, and we're grateful for the support of AT&T and the many other partners and organizations that have made this possible," he wrote.

Collar said setting up the O3b link took slightly longer than SES Network's stated goal because of the complexity of the disaster response and the uniqueness of pairing satellite with Google Loon.

Along with SES Networks, local telco Liberty Cablevision also assisted in establishing the ground infrastructure for Loon, Westgarth wrote.

Emergency response officials continue to use satellite communications directly in Puerto Rico and the Gulf of Mexico to support relief efforts. Fleet operator Intelsat said Oct. 23 it is donating satellite connectivity through three Kymeta-equipped vehicles with Liberty Global Puerto Rico for the next eight weeks. The FCC says satellite-connected trucks are providing communications services in 11 counties across the island, including Arecibo, home of the Arecibo radio telescope.

This story was provided by SpaceNews, dedicated to covering all aspects of the space industry.

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Senior Analyst, Quilty Analytics

Caleb Henry is a senior analyst for Quilty Analytics and a former staff writer for the space industry publication SpaceNews. From 2016 to 2020, Caleb covered the global satellite industry for SpaceNews, chronicling everything from launches, spacecraft manufacturing and ground infrastructure. Caleb's work has also appeared in NewSpace Global and Access Intelligence. He earned a bachelor's degree in political science with a minor in astronomy from Grove City College.