Loon partners with AT&T to ready internet balloons for disasters globally

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Loon, a division of Alphabet focused on providing internet access using floating balloons, has partnered with AT&T to help provide internet more quickly to disaster-stricken areas. In a blog post announcing the partnership, Loon CEO Alastair Westgarth says that the company has already integrated Loon’s system with AT&T’s network, allowing it to provide service to any mobile operators around the world that have an international roaming agreement in place with AT&T.

The partnership is designed to let Loon get its balloons up and running quicker when disasters knock out traditional internet infrastructure. Westgarth says that the company has to do a lot of prep work before it can start offering internet access, including integrating with local operators, and that doing more of this work in advance can shrink its response time from a month down to a matter of days. Having a preexisting partnership with AT&T helps this process.

Westgarth says that it took around a month for Loon to get its balloons operational in Puerto Rico in partnership with AT&T after the islands were hit by Hurricane Maria in 2017, for example. Since Loon had never previously offered a service in the region the “technical, regulatory, and operations teams had to start nearly from scratch to make the deployment happen,” Westgarth writes. However, when an earthquake hit Peru in 2019, Loon says its balloons were providing internet in necessary areas within 48 hours, thanks to its preexisting operations in the country.

Integrating with local networks is just one part of the prep work the company has to do before it can offer a service. It also needs to build ground infrastructure to act as a connection between its balloons, its partner’s core network, and the wider internet. Then there’s the issue of getting government and regulatory approvals.

Loon says it’s working to preempt these other areas of preparation. Westgarth says Loon already has regulatory approval to fly its balloons in over 50 countries and regions and that it’s working to install ground stations in the Caribbean ahead of hurricane season. If successful, these efforts should help communities stay connected in situations where communication is more vital than ever.

Along with offering disaster relief, Loon is also preparing to launch a commercial internet service in Kenya where it’s currently testing its internet balloons as well as to remote parts of the Peruvian Amazon. A partnership with satellite company Telesat, announced last year, will see Loon’s software used to control Telesat’s constellation of low Earth orbit satellites.

Loon originally started as a moonshot project within Alphabet’s experimental X division, but it was spun out to become its own division within Alphabet back in 2018 alongside drone-delivery startup Wing.

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