Alphabet’s Loon and AT&T will tackle global crises with internet balloons

Rachel England
Contributing Writer
Project Loon

Alphabet’s “balloon-powered internet” — Project Loon — has been active for five years now. Born of Google’s X Labs, the initiative sees balloons floating 20km high in the stratosphere, beaming internet to people below. Its primary function is to bring connectivity to those affected by natural disasters, ensuring they can access the web even if traditional systems have been compromised. Today, the project has announced it has expanded globally, thanks to its ongoing partnership with AT&T.

In 2017 AT&T became the first carrier to work with the balloon-distributed wireless setup in the aftermath of Puerto Rico’s Hurricane Maria. Now, that network integration has extended to AT&T’s 200+ global roaming partners, too, which means Loon has the ability to serve hundreds of operators around the world without having to carry out a specific network integration, which can take weeks or even months. This means that should a disaster strike, the service will more or less be ready to go straight away, which is the ultimate goal for the project, since no-one can predict when or where a disaster will hit.

There are still some constraints, though. Loon will still need to secure government approvals, and install ground infrastructure in a given region. The company has only just started operating in Kenya, for example, after waiting years for permission. However, the company says that it already has more than 50 agreements to fly over countries or regions, and that in anticipation of the 2020 hurricane season it’s begun installing infrastructure in the Caribbean region so it’s ready to respond as soon as it gets the go-ahead.

Project Loon’s overarching aim is to provide internet access to all not only in times of crisis, but in any circumstance where traditional connectivity systems are — or become — untenable. This expansion with AT&T brings it closer to its goal, although it isn’t the only carrier to work with the company — T-Mobile joined in 2017, and as extreme weather events become increasingly common, it’s likely that others still will get on board in the coming months.