EXPLAINER: Could balloons power uncensored internet in Cuba?

Florida’s Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, this week called on the administration of President Joe Biden to reveal his plan to deliver the Internet to people in Cuba via hot air balloons when their government blocks access.


It’s correct. For years, Alphabet – the parent company of Google – has been working on perfecting an internet ball-dividing service called Loon. It closed that project in January, saying it was not commercially viable.

Prior to the decommissioning, Loon balloons were offered service in mountainous areas in Kenya through a partnership with a local telecommunications company, Telkom Kenya. The service also helped provide wireless communications in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria, which destroyed the island’s cellular network. Loon has partnered with AT&T to provide the service.


Loon balloons are actually cell towers the size of a tennis court. They floated 60,000 to 75,000 feet, or 11 to 14 miles (18,000-23,000 meters, or 18-22 kilometers), above the Earth, well above commercial jetliner routes. Made of common polyethylene plastic, the balloons use solar panels to provide electricity and can provide service to smartphones in partnership with a local telecommunications company.

The company says each balloon can serve thousands of people. But they have to be replaced every five months or so because of the harsh conditions in the stratosphere. And the balloons can be difficult to control. “Navigation of hot air balloons through the stratosphere has always been difficult,” Salvatore Candido, who was Loon’s chief technology officer, wrote in a December 2020 blog post. monitor wind patterns.


Loon has said that in addition to the balloons, it needs to integrate the network with telecommunications to provide services and some ground-based equipment in the area. It also needs permission from local regulatory authorities – something the Cuban government is not capable of granting.


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It’s correct. Loon used multiple bubbles to extend connections beyond the necessary ground link. In one 2018 test, Loon said the connection jumped 1,000 kilometers, or about 620 miles, over 7 balloons. Another time, it bridged a wireless connection over 600 kilometers, or about 370 miles, between two balloons. Cuba and Florida are only about 100 miles (160 kilometers) apart at their closest.


But experts aren’t sure how easy it will be to set up a guerrilla Internet service for Cuba in this way. It would require an unused band of spectrum or radio frequency to transmit a connection to Cuba, and spectrum usage is usually controlled by national governments. Jacob Sharony, of Mobius Consulting, a mobile and wireless consulting firm, says anyone trying this will have to find a free mass spectrum that is not affected.

Tim Farrar of TMF Associates, a satellite communications consultant, said networks using balloons or drones are likely to be uneconomical in the long term. While they are suitable for connecting communications between disasters or in war zones, the transmission capacity of such networks is not great – “certainly not enough to serve the entire Cuban population.” or anything like that,” Farrar said.

Another challenge: The Cuban government might also try to jam the signal.


DeSantis promoted the balloon idea Thursday alongside two Cuban-American members of Congress from the Miami area, Representatives Maria Salazar and Carlos Gimenez, FCC commissioner Brendan Carr and attorney, businessman and director Curator of the Cuban American Museum Marcell Felipe.

Felipe said he talked for about two years with a defense contractor who could cost-effectively deploy such balloons in airspace near Cuba, but declined to name the company. Felipe said his idea would involve streaming a direct internet connection to mobile phones on the island, without the involvement of any ground providers. In comments to the Associated Press, Felipe stated that it would not be feasible for the Cuban government to intercept the signals emitted by the balloon “in any significant way”, though he did not specify any any evidence.

None of the proponents provided a cost estimate. Salazar said that if the federal government approves the plan, she believes it could be fully funded by donations from Cuban diaspora community members if needed.


Internet access in Cuba was expensive and relatively rare until recently. Starting in December 2018, Cubans can access the Internet on their phones through a state telecommunications monopoly. More than half of Cubans today have access to the internet.

But the Cuban government restricts independent media and censors what is available online to Cubans, according to Human Rights Watch. It disrupted internet access in an attempt to combat the protests.


AP Miami news agency director Ian Mader contributed to this article.

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