Google will be able to provide coverage there until 4 April, 2018. If all goes according to plan, the helium balloons will provide emergency LTE cellular reception to local governments and residents, allowing them to contact family and friends.
It will also enable them to reestablish communication with the outside world and manage relief efforts. At the time of writing, it is uncertain how much of Puerto Rico will be covered, which areas of the Virgin Islands will be covered, or how many balloons Google will deploy.
BREAKING: FCC issues experimental license to Google to provide emergency cellular service in Puerto Rico through Project Loon balloons.— Matthew Berry (@MatthewBerryDC) October 6, 2017
Kudos to FCC staff for quick work approving Google's application to provide emergency cellular service to Puerto Rico through Project Loon!— Matthew Berry (@MatthewBerryDC) October 6, 2017
This will not be the first time Google has sent its helium LTE coverage providers to assist in the wake of a disaster; the balloons gave Peruvians coverage after extreme flooding wiped out power and has also tested disaster relief initiatives in France, Brazil, New Zealand, Indonesia, and Sri Lanka.
However, in Peru the problem was simpler because Google was already working together with a local telecom provider to provide disaster relief, so the structure for getting signals to and from the balloons was already in place.
As Google and Project Loon arrive in Puerto Rico, they'll be starting with nothing in place. At this point, Puerto Rico's telecom companies may not be able to formally partner with Google and provide any resources toward this collaboration, but obviously Google intends to make connectivity happen if it can.
In a statement to Engadget, Google's Alphabet X lab, home to Project Loon, said partnership with local telecom networks is critical to success:
"To deliver signal to people's devices, Loon needs to be integrated with a telco partner's network - the balloons can't do it alone. We've been making solid progress on this next step and would like to thank everyone who's been lending a hand."
Project Loon uses its balloon network at 65,000 feet in the air to receive signals from a telecom partners on the ground, and then sends them to cellphone users.
According to Mashable, the Peruvian project leader said the balloons sent 160 GB of data as they floated over an area about the size of Sweden, "enough data to send and receive around 30 million WhatsApp messages, or 2 million emails."
After Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico's infrastructure, more than 75 percent of its cellphone towers remain offline, and power has yet to be restored to almost 90 percent of the island.
The situation remains fairly desperate for the island and its 3.5 million inhabitants, who are American citizens. Hopefully this initiative will prove successful.