When a magnitude 8.0 earthquake struck Peru on Sunday, it wreaked havoc on the country’s communications infrastructure. Within 48 hours, though, people in affected regions could use their mobile phones again. Loon, the Alphabet company, was there delivering wireless service by balloon.
Such a rapid response was possible because Loon happened to be in the country, testing its equipment while working out a deal with provider Telefonica. Both terrestrial infrastructure and the balloons themselves were already in place, and Loon simply had to reorganize its balloons to deliver service on short notice.
The last time Loon delivered emergency mobile service was in Puerto Rico, after Hurricane Maria devastated the island, killing nearly 3,000 people. In that case, it took the company four weeks from the day the storm hit to begin providing mobile data for the island. That was partly because the company had to launch the balloons from its facility in Winnemucca, Nevada and fly them over. But it was also because Loon wasn’t integrated into Puerto Rico’s existing network infrastructure before Maria hit.
While testing in various countries, Loon has used its facility in Winnemucca, and now one in Puerto Rico as well, to launch its balloons, rather than launching them on-site in the places it intends to serve. Loon’s balloons (which is as satisfying an exclamation as “Gadzooks!”) can rise and drop to opportunistically catch winds in the direction the company wants them to travel. The balloons currently providing service in northern Peru navigated from the company’s Puerto Rico site. Northern Peru was hit hardest by the earthquake, which has killed at least two people.
A representative from Loon clarified that the regions receiving emergency service include some areas covered by the company’s ongoing tests, as well as areas that were outside of that zone. In the latter case, Loon is doing something new—it’s sending signals from on-the-ground infrastructure to one balloon, and then hopping those signals from balloon to balloon, to carry service all the way out to the afflicted areas. The company previously demonstrated its ability to chain signals across seven balloons, but is now routinely linking 10 balloons at a time in Peru.
After Maria, Loon provided mobile data, but not voice. The company is following the same plan in Peru, and is now offering LTE service. The balloons are transmitting using band 28, or 700 megahertz, and Loon is using the E-band (75 to 85 gigahertz) for backhaul. Approximately 20,000 people used the balloons’ service in the first 48 hours. Each balloon covers about 5,000 square kilometers.
Loon hadn’t intended to make its commercial service plans with Telefonica public yet, but the earthquake changed that schedule. If the deal works out, Telefonica won’t be the first wireless provider to work with Loon—that distinction will go to Telkom Kenya later this year.
“Response is actually an imprecise way to view our unique capabilities. Preparedness is a more accurate way to understand them,” wrote Loon CEO Alastair Westgarth in a blog post. The company’s efforts in Peru have made it clear that Loon’s networks are flexible enough to respond quickly in the wake of a natural disaster, but that its success still largely depends on laying the groundwork for such a response ahead of time. And, while it certainly helps to already have balloons in the region, it’s just as critical to have the regulatory approvals and infrastructure agreements in place.