What Tech Hasand HasntDone for Puerto Rico
Two weeks after Hurricane Maria, Donald Trump flew to Puerto Rico, toured a relatively affluent neighborhood there, and expressed his relief that the storm had not been “a real catastrophe” like Hurricane Katrina. He jokingly chided Puerto Ricans for throwing the federal budget a “little out of whack.” In reality, Maria caused the largest blackout in US history, and the federal disaster response on the island was, at that point, a fraction of what residents of Florida and Texas had received during the same hurricane season. The government of Puerto Rico recently published a report estimating the storm's death toll at 1,427 people, more than 20 times the previous estimate. According to The New England Journal of Medicine, the storm and its aftermath ultimately killed more than 4,000.
If the federal government’s response to Maria was a scandal, the tech industry’s initial reaction seemed, comparatively, like a source of hope. In the days after the disaster, a small groundswell of private tech enthusiasm furthered the notion that Puerto Rico ought to become a test bed for renewable, distributed, climate-resilient infrastructure. Companies like Alphabet and Tesla, which were already working on the island, looked like they might be poised to make this idea a reality. Later, a different set of tech entrepreneurs descended on Puerto Rico as well, enticed by tax breaks to advance other, more esoteric techno-utopian visions. Here’s a progress report on how tech has, and hasn’t, managed to come to Puerto Rico’s rescue.
For years, Alphabet’s X (formerly known as Google X) has been working on a project called Loon, which provides cell service to remote areas via giant balloons. And it just so happened that one of the company’s two launch facilities for those signal-slinging balloons was located in Ceiba, on Puerto Rico’s eastern coast. So the company deployed a handful of the floating antennas, blanketing the island with text and data service for more than 250,000 customers of T-Mobile and AT&T for four months while parts of the electrical grid were down.
Two weeks after the storm, Elon Musk wrote on Twitter that Tesla had a track record of building decentralized electrical infrastructure—independent solar and battery systems—on small islands. “There is no scalability limit, so it can be done for Puerto Rico too,” he said. Puerto Rico’s governor, Ricardo Rosselló, tweeted back: “Let’s talk.” Since then, updates have come mostly in the form of more tweets. In April, Musk reported that “Tesla batteries are currently live & delivering power at 662 locations in Puerto Rico.” Then in June he tweeted, “We have about 11,000 projects underway” on the island. Tesla has declined to clarify what that means or how many Puerto Ricans are served by those projects.
The Blockchain Crowd
Over the past year, about 150 cryptocurrency entrepreneurs have settled on the island, according to Giovanni Mendez, a tax lawyer who has helped many of them. They’ve been drawn in part by incentives, passed in 2012, that give tax exemptions for capital gains and passive income to individuals who spend at least half their year on the island, and by an amendment, passed just months before Hurricane Maria, that eased requirements on US companies to hire Puerto Rican residents. One of the new arrivals was the cryptocurrency guru and former child actor Brock Pierce, who promptly said he was setting out to build a utopian community—perhaps even a whole new city—on the island, to the ire of many Puerto Ricans.
This article appears in the September issue. Subscribe now.
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