Alphabet's Loon partners with AT&T to extend network coverage during disasters

The Loon system was integrated with AT&T's network, giving Loon the ability to serve AT&T customers more quickly if traditional communications infrastructure was unexpectedly wiped out.

Loon, the former Google X project and now independent Alphabet company, has formed a network partnership with AT&T that will make it easier for Loon to provide internet connectivity through its high-altitude broadband balloons over disaster zones. Under the partnership, the Loon system was integrated with AT&T's network, giving Loon the ability to serve AT&T customers more quickly if traditional communications infrastructure was unexpectedly wiped out.

The network integration also extends to AT&T's global roaming partners, meaning Loon now has the ability to serve hundreds of operators around the world without having to conduct a specific network integration with each one -- a typically arduous and time consuming process.

Loon's business model is to partner with global telcos to expand Internet coverage to underserved areas. According to Loon, each of its balloons, from 20km above earth, can cover an area of about 80km in diameter and serve about 1,000 users on the ground using an LTE connection. However, Loon balloons need a backhaul connection from an access point on the ground in order to extend connectivity to users in places it doesn't exist.

"This is a huge step forward for Loon and our relationship with AT&T, which dates back to our efforts in Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria," said Loon's CEO Alastair Westgarth, in a blog post. "In many ways, this moment is the result of years of collaboration and learning in the years following. We're extremely excited about continuing our relationship with AT&T and what the future will bring."

In October 2017, Loon was granted permission by the US Federal Communications Commission to use its balloons to restore connectivity to Puerto Rico following the devastation of Hurricane Maria. According to Loon, the balloons were also used in 2017 when the El Nino floods devastated parts of Northern Peru, and again in 2019 when a 8.0 magnitude earthquake hit Peru.

The former X project was spun out as an independent company in 2018 alongside Wing, Alphabet's drone business. 

In the last few months, Loon secured approvals to fly over additional countries including Kenya, Uganda, Namibia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Chad, Malawi, and Lesotho. The balloons are now approved to fly over 50 countries and regions around the world. The company is also currently working on adding ground installations in the Caribbean in preparation for the upcoming hurricane season.

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