Project Loon balloons bring LTE service to Puerto Rico with help from Apple

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Google parent company Alphabet on Friday said it is collaborating with AT&T, Apple and various government agencies to deliver limited wireless internet access to Puerto Rico via the company's Project Loon balloons.

Announced in a blog post by Alistair Westgarth, head of Project Loon, the partnership seeks to reconnect the thousands of Puerto Ricans impacted by Hurricane Maria in September. Currently, balloons launched in Nevada are floating above the hardest hit parts of the island, temporarily replacing ground infrastructure destroyed by the storm.

Part of Alphabet's X innovation lab, Project Loon equips stratospheric balloons with communications equipment to provide internet connectivity to remote areas of the world. Many balloons can stay aloft for 100 days, though a record-setting test unit floated for 190 days, Westgarth says.

In the weeks following Maria's landfall, Project Loon has worked with the government of Puerto Rico, as well as the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, Federal Aviation Administration and Federal Emergency Management Agency to gain regulatory approval for emergency balloon flights.

AT&T is providing LTE service for basic communication like text messaging and internet access, while companies like SES Networks and Liberty Cablevision helped deploy essential hardware on the ground.

According to Axios, Apple is rolling out a cellular settings update for iOS that will grant iPhones in region Band 8 spectrum access, a currently unused LTE frequency band leveraged by Loon's balloons.

Project Loon's efforts in Puerto Rico mark the second time the balloon technology has been used to assist in disaster relief. In 2016, Loon balloons floated over Peru to deliver basic internet services to thousands of people affected by widespread flooding.