Alphabet's Loon partners with AT&T to extend coverage globally in case of disasters

Darrell Etherington

Alphabet -owned Loon, the company focused on providing connectivity via high-altitude, stratosphere skimming balloons that can act as on-demand, deployable cell towers, has signed a new agreement with AT&T. This partnership will help Loon ensure it's in a much better position to address any potential need for disaster response cellular network coverage, thanks to AT&T and it global network partners.

The main benefit of the tie-up is that Loon's system will now be fully integrated with AT&T, and this will also extend to any third-party mobile service provider that is already partnered with the U.S. carrier in order to provide international roaming for its network. That's a key ingredient because the nature of disaster preparedness means you can't really be sure when or where service will be needed, so the extended AT&T network provides a good swath of global coverage ready to be turned on in relatively short notice.

This is actually one of the most time-consuming elements of the entire process of setting up an emergency response Loon deployment, and can take "weeks or months" according to the company. Perhaps not surprisingly to anyone who has worked with carriers, there's a lot of discussion and negotiation involved, which in many ways is more difficult than launching balloons to the stratosphere and navigating them thousands of miles with sensitive antenna attached.

The new partnership means that Loon should have over 200 global roaming partners ready to go in case of need, thanks to AT&T's existing agreements. Loon notes that this won't mean they don't still work with local operators directly in order to improve and expedite response, and it still needs to work with local regulators and ensure that there is ground infrastructure present that can work with its equipment.

Loon is also tackling those potential hurdles, however, securing agreements with various regulatory bodies and governments for fly-over permission (it has signed over 50 thus far), and it's also placing ground infrastructure where it's likely to be needed most – like in the Caribbean, where it's in the process of installing ground stations in anticipation of the forthcoming hurricane season for this year.

Loon previously worked with AT&T during its disaster response efforts in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, so the two have a history of working collaboratively in times of need.

Meanwhile, Loon is also readying its first commercial service deployment in Kenya, which will be a big milestone in terms of its broader goals of providing reliable service to hard-to-reach areas around the world.