Big Tech plans to help re­con­nect Puerto Rico

Need for restor­ing power, com­mu­ni­ca­tion great

Las Vegas Review-Journal (Sunday) - - NATION - By Matt O’Brien

Face­book and Google once aimed to con­nect the world. Now they would be happy just to re­con­nect part of it.

In the wake of Hur­ri­cane Maria, Face­book CEO Mark Zucker­berg pledged to send a “con­nec­tiv­ity team” to help re­store com­mu­ni­ca­tions in rav­aged Puerto Rico. Google parent com­pany Al­pha­bet of­fered to send its Wi-Fi bal­loons. They were among sev­eral tech com­pa­nies propos­ing disas­ter re­sponse ideas, most aimed at get­ting phone and in­ter­net ser­vice up and run­ning.

Some of th­ese plans, of course, are more as­pi­ra­tional than oth­ers.

Bat­tery power

Tesla CEO Elon Musk of­ten takes to Twit­ter to mull over ideas, but on Fri­day his mus­ings about send­ing his com­pany’s so­lar-pow­ered bat­ter­ies to help re­store Puerto Rico’s power at­tracted the at­ten­tion of the is­land’s gover­nor.

“Let’s talk,” said Gov. Ri­cardo Ros­sello in a Fri­day tweet.

Musk agreed. Hours later, he an­nounced he was de­lay­ing the un­veil­ing of Tesla’s new semi-truck and di­vert­ing re­sources, in part to “in­crease bat­tery pro­duc­tion for Puerto Rico and other af­fected ar­eas.”

The need for help in restor­ing power and com­mu­ni­ca­tion after Hur­ri­cane Maria is great: The Puerto Ri­can en­ergy author­ity re­ported Satur­day that about 88 per­cent of the is­land is still with­out power. The Fed­eral Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Com­mis­sion said Satur­day that 82 per­cent of cell sites re­main out in Puerto Rico; 58 per­cent are out of ser­vice in the U.S. Vir­gin Is­lands.

The FCC’s daily sta­tus re­port also shows sig­nif­i­cant wire­line, TV and ra­dio out­ages re­main in both U.S. ter­ri­to­ries. The agency formed a task force this week and ap­proved an ad­vance of $77 mil­lion to sup­port car­ri­ers work­ing to re­store telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions ser­vices.

Vague prom­ises

But many of­fers of help from big com­pa­nies re­main some­what vague. Google parent com­pany Al­pha­bet has pro­posed launch­ing bal­loons over the is­land to bring Wi-Fi ser­vice to hardto-reach places, as it has in other parts of the world.

The FCC an­nounced Satur­day that it’s ap­proved an ex­per­i­men­tal li­cense for Project Loon to op­er­ate in Puerto Rico. But that doesn’t mean it will able to get them in the air any­time soon.

“We’re grate­ful for the sup­port of the FCC and the Puerto Ri­can au­thor­i­ties as we work hard to see if it’s pos­si­ble to use Loon bal­loons to bring emer­gency con­nec­tiv­ity to the is­land dur­ing this time of need,” said Libby Leahy, a spokesman for Al­pha­bet’s X divi­sion.

But there are lim­i­ta­tions, she said Satur­day.

“To de­liver sig­nal to peo­ple’s de­vices, Loon needs be in­te­grated with a telco part­ner’s net­work — the bal­loons can’t do it alone,” she said.

Col­lab­o­ra­tive ef­forts

Cisco Sys­tems has sent a tac­ti­cal team and says it is work­ing with gov­ern­ment, emer­gency re­spon­ders and ser­vice providers. The com­pany, with Mi­crosoft and oth­ers, backs the NetHope con­sor­tium, which spe­cial­izes in set­ting up post-disas­ter com­mu­ni­ca­tion net­works.

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