Lara Rosenberg

Project Loon to Restore Connectivity to Puerto Rico and U.S. Virgin Islands

Hurricane Maria destroyed Puerto Rico’s cell tower infrastructure in September, severely limiting communications among those on the island. After the hurricane, 95.2% of Puerto Rico’s cell towers were down, meaning forty-eight of the seventy-eight counties had no service at all.1 There are 2,739 cell sites on Puerto Rico’s 13,791 square kilometers, an area roughly the size of Connecticut.2 Now, one month after the storm, approximately 66% of Puerto Rican cell sites are still down, and four counties have no service.3

As a temporary solution, on October 7, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) granted a Special Temporary Authority (STA) to enable Project Loon to restore LTE service to Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands using its fleet of hot air balloons.4 As of October 20, Project Loon has partnered with AT&T and is currently providing service to parts of the island.5

Project Loon was the brainchild of X, an experimental division of Google’s parent company, Alphabet. The project’s mission is to provide internet access to rural and remote areas using hot air balloons equipped with transceivers and machine-learning technology.6 Earlier this year, the balloons were successfully deployed over Peru after severe flooding wiped out the country’s cell towers.7 In a dark foreshadowing, the balloons used to restore connectivity to three Peruvian cities were launched from Puerto Rico.8

To secure the STA, Project Loon submitted a detailed application, including seven letters and one email of support from the wireless companies that own the radio frequencies Project Loon will utilize for this endeavor.9 The license grants Project Loon authority to operate on the specified frequencies for 180 days, with the possibility of an extension dependent on necessity.10

The balloons occupy an altitude of approximately twenty kilometers, well above the area commercial airlines typically fly.11 To ensure safety, the balloons and the human control center communicate with air traffic control during ascent, the duration of the balloons flight, and descent.12 The balloons stay afloat for about 100 days at a time, completely powered by solar panels.13 The proposed fleet for Puerto Rico will have thirty balloons that can serve 5,000 square kilometers each.14

Engineers have incorporated machine learning technology into the navigation systems of the balloons which allows Project Loon to extend the flight time of each balloon.15 The balloons operate as a flock: the artificial intelligence analyzes weather data and communicates among the balloons, and their flight patterns are overseen by humans in a central ground control station.16 This use of artificial intelligence significantly lowered the operating cost of the project, increasing its chances of success in the long run because fewer balloons will be required.17

But the success of Project Loon is not guaranteed. Project Loon’s competitor, Space Data, filed a complaint against X, Alphabet, and Google, alleging patent infringement and trade secret appropriation by Project Loon.18  In June 2017, the U.S. Patent and Trade office (USPTO) canceled one of Project Loon’s foundational patents with the encouragement of Space Data.19 Since 2004, Space Data has been using balloons to provide commercial wireless services. Google came close to purchasing Space Data in 2008, but, four years after pulling back from those conversations, Google engineers began to file the patents related to the service Project Loon will now provide.20 The case is currently set for trial in the summer of 2019.21

In spite of Project Loon’s recent strides towards realizing its mission of reaching the untapped internet market in remote corners of the world, this lawsuit could throw a serious wrench into the company’s plans. Should the court find Alphabet or Google employees acted maliciously, it could grant an injunction against X prohibiting the use of the stolen foundational technology or grant punitive damages that inhibit Project Loon’s operation. Until then, it appears Project Loon will continue to demonstrate its usefulness and build its reputation by participating in disaster relief efforts.

GLTR Staff Member; Georgetown Law, J.D. expected 2019; University of South Carolina, B.A. 2012. ©2018, Lara Rosenberg.