Natural disasters claimed lives and damaged infrastructure across parts of the United States, Mexico, and the Caribbean in recent months, commanding attention in news headlines, as well as in earnings reports. In a summary of Q3 natural disaster responses to investors on Tuesday, AT&T addressed the steps it took during these events:
Kept customers connected to their friends, family and businesses through Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, Nate and Maria, multiple earthquakes in Mexico and wildfires across Northern California. The company deployed its fleet of network recovery technologies as needed, including drones, Cell on Wheels, Cell on Light Trucks, emergency communication vehicles and portable and fixed generators.
Hurricane Maria devastated the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico when it made landfall on the island in September. As of October 25, only 25% of electric service, 65% of telecommunications services, 58% of cell towers, and 35% of cell sites had been restored, according to the Puerto Rican government. In the meantime, the catastrophic scale and severity of the hurricane’s impact have presented major challenges to the response teams working to restore basic services. In some cases, this has meant that technologies and companies that might not otherwise be active on the island have intervened.
Here are three noteworthy examples:
AT&T and Apple enable provisional LTE Band 8
LTE Band 8, which operates on the 900Mhz frequency, was not previously approved for use in the U.S., including Puerto Rico. In the wake of Maria’s damage, however, AT&T, Apple engineers, and the Federal Communications Commission, allowed the provisional band to become available on AT&T’s network through a carrier settings update to Apple’s iPhone 5c and subsequent models that run iOS 10 or later. With so many towers out across the island, the new band meant that devices with the proper settings enabled could communicate with operational towers — or balloons, in the case of Alphabet’s Project Loon — from increased ranges.
“A significant amount of collaboration over the entire telco ecosystem in Puerto Rico is needed to enable Alphabet Loon balloons to offer cellular coverage to the areas covered by current towers that don’t have power,” said Orange Silicon Valley Wireless Network Specialist John Benko. “In addition to all the collaboration required with AT&T to setup temporary cell IDs broadcasted by the Loons — as well as securing backhaul — if Google would like to offer service to other non-AT&T cellular users it would require further collaboration from all the cellular providers.”
Alphabet’s Project Loon deploys LTE balloons
Loon, the balloon-based project started by Google and now housed at parent company Alphabet’s X, also received permission from the FCC to operate while recovery efforts are underway in Puerto Rico. Through a partnership with AT&T, X got the opportunity test its technology, which had previously been used in Peru.
“Alphabet’s X lab has been granted permission by the Federal Communications Commission to launch 30 of its stratospheric Project Loon balloons, which will float 12.5 miles above Puerto Rico to provide voice and data service,” explained Orange Silicon Valley Infrastructure Engineer Scott Dworkis. “As one of the company’s early efforts, Alphabet’s Project Loon now finds itself in a position to fast track through FCC regulation processes and deliver urgently needed services in Puerto Rico.”
In this case, deployment represents a chance for Loon to provide help to Puerto Ricans, but also to gather valuable performance data that X wouldn’t have had otherwise, potentially helping Alphabet to make improvements with its moonshot balloons.
Facebook sends connectivity team
Facebook has its own experimental connectivity technology, which it has tested aboard its solar-powered Aquila drones — though the social media company has not announced plans to deploy them in Puerto Rico. What Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg did announce, however, was that it would send its connectivity team (reportedly “several” employees) to assist with communications issues on the ground.
“We’re sending the Facebook connectivity team to deliver emergency telecommunications assistance to get the systems up and running,” Zuckerberg explained. “We’re also supporting this work with a $1.5 million donation to NetHope and the World Food Programme. We’re also donating Facebook ads to get critical information to people in the region on how to get assistance and stay safe.”
NetHope, meanwhile, has blogged about its efforts and partners, including Facebook, that have been helping to get equipment distributed and connectivity restored. The organization is currently focused “on providing essential rapidly deployable communications solutions while working with the mobile network operators and internet service providers to restore services for the long term.”