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Google balloons, power by Tesla: Tech biggies out to help Puerto Rico

Sahil Bhalla | Updated on: 9 October 2017, 15:03 IST
(File photo)

Balloons to restore cellular phone service. Electricity to be restored using solar technology. Yes, this might be the short-term future of storm-ravaged Puerto Rico.

More than 83% inhabitants of the island have been affected by no cellphone coverage ever since Hurricane Irma Maria hit the island. An 'emergency license' has been issued by the United States Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to Google's parent company Aplhpabet to deploy Project Loon balloons over Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands for up to six months. The license extends from 6 October until 4 April of next year.

Puerto Rico, a US protectorate, is home to more than 3.5 million people.

The license was granted to Ben Wojtowicz. Wojtowicz is a software engineer and works for Alphabet’s X lab. These Helium balloons, once launched, are expected to deliver emergency LTE cellular reception. This will allow residents and the local government to reestablish communication with the outside world, which they haven't been able to do since the hurricane hit.

It's unclear at the moment as to how many balloons will be deployed over Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.

Project Loon is part of Alphabet X innovation lab’s initiative. Essentially, what it does is beam high-speed Wi-Fi via these balloons.

“The purpose of the [Special Temporary Authority] is to support licensed mobile carriers’ restoration of limited communications capability in areas of Puerto Rico and the United States Virgin Islands affected by Hurricanes Irma and Maria,” the license reads.

Remember that earlier this year, Project Loon had deployed balloons over Peru, which was reeling after a series of devastating floods. Alphabet’s X lab spokesperson Libby Leahy sent out this message to various media channels:

"We’re grateful for the support of the FCC and the Puerto Rican authorities as we work hard to see if it’s possible to use Loon balloons to bring emergency connectivity to the island during this time of need. To deliver a signal to people’s devices, Loon needs 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."

Elon Musk to the rescue?

While the internet and mobile connectivity is a necessity in this day and age, so is electricity. Who better to come to the rescue of Puerto Ricans than electric car maker Tesla CEO Elon Musk. Puerto Rico's power grid has been pretty much-demolished post-hurricane Maria.

Replying to a comment on Twitter about rebuilding Puerto Rico’s power grid using solar technology, Musk replied saying that this has been done on a much smaller scale but said that it can be done for Puerto Rico as well. It could essentially be scaled up for the island nation.

This prompted a "let's talk" from the Ricardo Rossello, the island's governor.

This could very much be possible. Tesla, earlier this year, had absorbed SolarCity (another one of Musk's company's). SolarCity manufactures solar roofs and energy storage units.

Just 10% of the island has power at the moment. According to the Puerto state-owned electric company, it could take about 4-6 months for some communities to be able to regain the ability to turn the lights back on.

For the record, Tesla has already been able to ship hundreds of Powerall battery systems to Puerto Ricans. Tesla employees are currently installing and training locals on how to further the process.

Also earlier in the year, Twitter was privy to a bet between an Australian software entrepreneur and Musk. This led to plans being drawn up for the largest lithium-ion battery facility the world has ever seen. It will be coming up in South Australia at a cost of $50 million. It will be able to provide electricity to over 30,000 homes.

Puerto Rico’s chief innovation officer Glorimar Ripoli is also on board, which is a good sign. Let's just hope all this talk turns into some real action.

First published: 9 October 2017, 15:03 IST
Sahil Bhalla @IMSahilBhalla

Sahil is a correspondent at Catch. A gadget freak, he loves offering free tech support to family and friends. He studied at Sarah Lawrence College, New York and worked previously for Scroll. He selectively boycotts fast food chains, worries about Arsenal, and travels whenever and wherever he can. Sahil is an unapologetic foodie and a film aficionado.