Hurricane Maria Could Offer A Chance To Build A New Tech Infrastructure In Puerto Rico
MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:
In Puerto Rico, nearly a month after Hurricane Maria hit, much of the island is still without power or cell phone service or Wi-Fi. That represents a crisis for people living in Puerto Rico, but also maybe an opportunity. That's our topic for this week's All Tech Considered.
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KELLY: Big tech companies are contemplating the chance to build a new tech infrastructure from scratch in Puerto Rico. Ina Fried has been talking to folks at some of those big tech companies. She's chief technology correspondent for Axios. Hi there. Welcome.
INA FRIED: Good to be here.
KELLY: Which companies are we talking about? Which tech firms are working in Puerto Rico right now?
FRIED: It's a lot of the big-name companies you'd expect and a few that you might not. Facebook, Cisco, Google are all there both trying to assist in the rebuilding as well as in the emergency response efforts so far.
KELLY: And I heard that some of them are actually - they're kind of shacking up together. They're actually living side by side to try to collaborate.
FRIED: There is. There's a group called NetHope that's actually a coalition of the big world charities. And it's the tech arm of those charities. And they pull volunteers from all these different firms. And they've actually rented three houses in Puerto Rico. And so you have people from those companies, yeah, living side by side and working side by side.
KELLY: Talk us through some of the ideas that they are coming up with to try to bring some of these services back, and then think big about, if you're trying to rebuild Puerto Rico from scratch, what opportunities are out there.
FRIED: The first thing you have to do is get communication in any way that you can. So in the early days, as it's really a rescue, recovery, emergency operation, they used primarily satellite phones because there isn't infrastructure and they need to be able to communicate. But that's expensive and not sustainable. So the next thing they try and do is look for some sort of short- to mid-term operation that doesn't rely on such an expensive technology. And here's where things get interesting.
One of the options that's coming to the plate is the parent company of Google, Alphabet, has this idea called Project Loon that comes out of its X research unit. And the idea is to use these high-altitude balloons to connect the cell phones in areas where the infrastructure is down. And they have preliminary approval from the FCC to try this out in Puerto Rico.
KELLY: I mean, I'm guessing priority No. 1 is trying to get power restored across the island. It's hard to think about terribly high-tech things if people aren't able to turn their light switch on on their wall. How is that effort going? And what is the thinking as these tech companies move in and try to move that along?
FRIED: That's still really slow going. And it's causing, as you mentioned, a lot of follow-on problems. So the water system is actually tied to the power system. So you have the dual problem of they don't have power and they don't have clean water. And those are huge problems. Obviously, a lack of clean water could lead to waterborne diseases, sanitation issues. And the power issue itself, it's hard to do much work. So we're seeing some interesting longer-term things.
Tesla's CEO, Elon Musk, tweeted out, hey, can I help? And that actually sparked a discussion with Puerto Rico's governor. And they're looking into whether solar and batteries might be a longer-term solution. There is opportunity here that things, when they do get built back, will be built back significantly better than they were before the hurricane.
KELLY: Are you able to gauge whether these tech companies are working together at least for now? Or are they competing? I mean, these are competitors in the tech markets.
FRIED: I mean, the really neat thing about this is certainly in the emergency response through NetHope these companies really do work side by side. They set aside their competitive things. And this isn't really a moneymaking opportunity in the short term. It becomes one when we talk about rebuilding. And I think you will see some of the same companies that are working side by side as volunteers today competing for contracts down the road for the actual rebuilding. So they haven't given up on capitalism altogether.
KELLY: Well, that prompts my last question, which is, who will pay? Because Puerto Rico is broke, and these technologies are not going to be cheap.
FRIED: Yeah, the tech companies aren't going to provide this for free. So, I mean, ultimately it will have to come through either the dollars being allocated for the relief effort or additional investments. These will be costly expenditures. Hopefully the political will will be there to make this happen. But certainly none of these companies are offering to rebuild it for free.
KELLY: Ina Fried, thanks so much.
FRIED: You're most welcome.
KELLY: Ina Fried, chief technology correspondent for Axios, talking about the challenges and opportunities ahead in Puerto Rico. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.