Working with AT&T to offer a global connectivity solution in times of disaster

Preparing all the necessary elements of a Loon deployment for the possibility of a disaster anywhere in the world is a tall order. But today, we’re taking a big step toward that goal with a global collaboration with AT&T that will put us in a position to respond more quickly and effectively to disasters worldwide.

Alastair Westgarth
May 5, 2020 · 5 min read

Loon can be incredibly effective in times of crisis or disaster. Because even in a place that has good mobile network coverage, people who were served can quickly become unserved for significant periods of time when a disaster hits. Loon’s unique ability to provide resilient and flexible service makes our solution an important and powerful tool in such scenarios.

The problem with disasters, however, is that they are unpredictable by nature. Despite our best efforts, we can’t know when or where the hurricane or earthquake may hit. This is a significant hurdle as we think about deploying Loon because enabling our network takes a fair amount of prep work, including a few key elements that are required for Loon to serve:

  1. Government and regulatory approvals. We need the ability to fly over a country or region where we intend to serve, and we need authorization to utilize various communications frequencies to enable our service.
  2. Ground infrastructure. While we do most of our work from the stratosphere, our balloons do need to connect with ground installations, where we get the physical connection point to the internet and our local partner’s core network. This ground infrastructure needs to be imported, installed, and tested.
  3. Local network integration. We need an established relationship and network integration with a local mobile network operator (MNO). Loon doesn’t provide service directly to consumers. We work with a local MNO — like Telkom in Kenya — to extend their service to places where it doesn’t exist. A consumer of Loon’s service is actually a consumer of their local MNO’s service. That service just happens to be provided via a floating cell tower 20km in the sky.

These are the elements needed for any Loon deployment, including one in response to a disaster. Depending on how much progress has been made on each of these necessary requirements, our response time in a disaster situation can vary greatly. As an example, take Loon’s response to two recent disasters — in Puerto Rico in 2017 and Peru in 2019.

Learning from our experiences in Puerto Rico and Peru

One of Loon’s early experiences responding to a disaster scenario was when Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico in 2017, knocking out nearly all of the island’s communications infrastructure. Soon after the hurricane hit, we teamed up with AT&T and others to see how we could help. AT&T has a history of using bold and innovative technologies in order to serve their customers in all conditions — and delivers through FirstNet the only nationwide, wireless communications platform dedicated to and purpose-built for America’s first responders and the public safety community — so the collaboration was a great fit. Because we had never served in Puerto Rico, however, the AT&T and Loon technical, regulatory, and operations teams had to start nearly from scratch to make the deployment happen. Working around the clock it took about a month to get the service up and running. But it was well worth it: while the Loon deployment was supposed to last for just a few weeks, we ended up serving AT&T users for months.

The Loon network over Peru following an 8.0 magnitude earthquake in May 2019.

Fast forward to Peru in 2019, and the circumstances of our deployment were quite different. Because we had been testing our service in the country, we had in place virtually every element needed to deploy the Loon service. When a magnitude 8.0 earthquake struck Peru and knocked out communications infrastructure, we were able to simply reposition balloons to impacted areas. Rather than a month to get the service up in running, we were able to begin serving users in need within 48 hours of the earthquake.

These two experiences shaped our understanding of how we think about our ability to help in a disaster scenario. We’ve moved away from thinking primarily about disaster response; We now primarily think about disaster preparedness. If we can prepare the necessary elements that go into a Loon deployment in advance, we’ll be able to measure our ability to respond to a disaster not in weeks, but in days or hours.

AT&T + Loon = Disaster Preparedness at scale

Since we don’t know when or where a disaster will hit, preparing the necessary elements of a Loon deployment for the possibility of a disaster anywhere in the world is a tall order. Today, we’re taking a big step toward that goal with a global collaboration alongside AT&T that will put us in a position to respond more quickly and effectively to disasters worldwide.

Under the partnership, we have successfully integrated the Loon system with AT&T’s network. This is a big deal because this network integration will extend to AT&T’s partners around the world, meaning Loon will be able to provide service to a third-party mobile operator, assuming they have a standard international roaming relationship with AT&T. While coordination with a local operator will be crucial, Loon’s ability to leverage the AT&T network vastly expands the number of operators around the world that Loon can work with without having to complete time-intensive network integration for each one. In a disaster scenario, this will save valuable time and enable Loon to simultaneously serve several, if not all, the mobile operators in a market.

As JR Wilson, AT&T Vice President of Tower Strategy and Roaming, put it: “At AT&T, delivering reliable connections is central to our mission. So in situations when disaster strikes — and our customers need connection more than ever — rapidly restoring communications is critical. We’re pleased to work with Loon to make this an ongoing reality for customers around the world.”

While this pairing will greatly simplify the network integration element of Loon’s disaster response, there is still work needed on the other two elements required for a Loon deployment — government approvals and ground infrastructure installation — to better position ourselves to respond to more disaster scenarios. On these two fronts, we are making significant progress.

In just the last few months, we have secured approvals to fly over additional countries, including Kenya, Uganda, Namibia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Chad, Malawi, and Lesotho. This brings to over 50 the total number of countries and regions we have approval to fly over.

And with hurricane season approaching in the Caribbean, we’re working to strategically install ground stations in the region so we can reach more countries in a time of need.

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. 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.

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