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Google officially flips on its internet-beaming balloons in Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico is in trouble. Approximately 3 million of its residents are still without electricity after the island was devastated by Hurricane Maria, and 30% lack access to drinkable water. Exacerbating the process of recovery is the fact that communication infrastructure in general, and the internet specifically, is experiencing trouble across the U.S. territory.

Enter Alphabet’s Project Loon, which on October 20 announced that it had officially switched on its balloon-powered internet for some Puerto Rican residents. That’s right giant balloons are providing digital connectivity for some people who might otherwise go without. 

“Working with AT&T, Project Loon is now supporting basic communication and internet activities like sending text messages and accessing information online for some people with LTE enabled phones,” explains the company in a blog post. “This is the first time we have used our new machine learning powered algorithms to keep balloons clustered over Puerto Rico, so we’re still learning how best to do this. As we get more familiar with the constantly shifting winds in this region, we hope to keep the balloons over areas where connectivity is needed for as long as possible.”

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The balloons, which are now being deployed in a post-disaster setting for the second time, typically stay in the stratosphere for 100 days. They work by relaying signals from ground stations to people out of the reach of cell towers. With the use of an LTE mobile phone, people in affected areas can use that signal to connect to the internet — communicating with loved ones and getting much needed information in the process.  

“Project Loon is still an experimental technology and we’re not quite sure how well it will work, but we hope it helps get people the information and communication they need to get through this unimaginably difficult time,” the company explained. 

While Project Loon is far from perfect, how well it performs (or doesn’t) in Puerto Rico may be a sign of things to come. In the future, post disaster internet may be a thing we all take for granted — even if clean drinking water still isn’t.

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Will Ferrell stars in PSA campaign to remind you to put your phone away

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Will Ferrell is here to remind you that technology can be terrible.  

A new PSA campaign, produced by Common Sense Media, features the Emmy-winning comedic actor being unable to put down his phone and making his family’s attempt at “device-free dinner” incredibly awkward. 

The campaign was released in tandem with the San-Francisco-based nonprofit’s most recent media use census

The report found that that children 8 years old and under spend a whopping 48 minutes a day staring at a mobile screen. It also found that 42 percent of children now own their own tablets. 

Both of these figures show a stark increase from previous years. These hilarious yet somber ads show us that maybe we should be, uh, doing something about this. 

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Common Sense Media hopes these ads will encourage families to have device-free dinners of their own. 

The organization’s website contains tips to plan a successful device-free dinner. For example: Establish consequences if your kids are using their phones too much. And maybe don’t invite Will Ferrell over. 

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Apple makes an unexpected deal to improve cell service in Puerto Rico

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The ongoing crisis in Puerto Rico is making some strange bedfellows.

On Wednesday, Apple announced that it will, with AT&T’s help, enable the 900 MHz Band 8 ban cell service on many iPhones in Puerto Rico. That band can only connect to Google’s Project Loon.

“We are working with AT&T to activate cellular service for iPhone users in Puerto Rico as the island recovers from Hurricane Maria. Apple engineers have created a special carrier settings update which users connected to Wi-Fi or who are connected to a cellular network will automatically be prompted to download throughout the week,” said Apple in an official statement.

Devastated on an almost unprecedented scale by Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico has struggled to rebuild core parts of its infrastructure, including basic communication technologies. Many people reported being unable to contact friends and families via cellphones and the internet. 

900 MHz (a 3G Extended GSM network) is not the normal band for cell communications and is not even one licensed for use in the U.S. and Puerto Rico. However, it is the communication band supported by Google’s Project Loon project. 

Earlier this month, Google got the okay to float its still-experimental, helium-balloon-based connection technology over the storm-ravaged island. The Loon balloons are designed to provide internet connectivity for rural areas and operate, more or less, as unmoored cell-towers, floating in the stratosphere and staying aloft for six months. A network carrier, like AT&T, communicates from the ground with the nearest Loon balloon and the balloons communicate with each other. Google’s balloons can provide up to a 10 Mbps LTE connectivity for cellphone owners on the ground.

However, before AT&T iPhone owners (iPhone 5c and above running iOS 10 and higher) can connect to Google’s Loon balloons, they need a crucial carrier update which will enable the 900 MHz Band 8. The iPhone’s mobile broadband radio already supports the provisional band, it’s just not enabled on the phone so the device doesn’t waste battery power scanning for a band that usually doesn’t have service.

The update is comparatively tiny (it can be measured in kilobytes), but the question remains: If there’s limited connectivity, how are Puerto Rico’s iPhone users going to download it?

According to StatusPR, a governmental web site dedicated to tracking Puerto Rica’s infrastructure in the wake of Hurricane Maria, more than half of the U.S. territory’s cell towers are out of commission and 75% of cell antennas are still not functional.

There are pockets of connectivity and, overall, StatusPR reports 61% of the Puerto Rican telecommunication system is back online. This, however, includes wired and wireless systems. It’s not clear if AT&T iPhone customers can also download that carrier update from wired systems.

We’ve contacted AT&T for clarification and will update this story with their response.

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Alphabet’s Project Loon deploys LTE balloons in Puerto Rico

Alphabet’s Project Loon has officially deployed its LTE balloons to Puerto Rico, the team announced this afternoon. In a blog penned by Project Loon head Alastair Westgarth, the company says it’s working with the Federal Communications Commission, the Federal Aviation Authority, FEMA, and other cellular spectrum and aviation authorities to bring connectivity to parts of the island still suffering in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. Loon’s official LTE partner for the initiative is AT&T, which is helping Loon use its fleet of stratospheric helium balloons to bring functions like text messaging and minor web browsing access to Puerto Rico residents who have LTE-equipped smartphones.

“We’ve never deployed Project Loon connectivity from scratch at such a rapid pace, and we’re grateful for the support of AT&T and the many other partners and organizations that have made this possible,” Westgarth writes. “Thanks to the Pan-American and Puerto Rican governments’ aviation authorities and air traffic controllers, who enabled us to send small teams of balloons from our launch site in Nevada to Puerto Rico. Thanks also to SES Networks and Liberty Cablevision who helped quickly set up essential ground infrastructure so that the balloons could get internet connectivity.”

Loon’s balloons have been used in a number of regions across the globe since 2013, including one other high-profile disaster relief effort in Peru after the country was struck with massive rains and extreme flooding back in May of last year. Yet the effort in Puerto Rico marks the fastest deployment, and its aimed at helping nearly 3.5 million residents of the island regain connectivity. As of early October, when the FCC first gave Loon the green light to operate in Puerto Rico, nearly 83 percent of cell towers were still down.

Think you can hack Tinder? Google will pay you $1,000.

Image: NurPhoto via Getty Images

Hackers, it’s your time to shine. 

Google, in collaboration with bug bounty platform HackerOne, has launched the Google Play Security Reward Program, which promises $1,000 to anyone who can identify security vulnerabilities in participating Google Play apps. 

Thirteen apps are currently participating, including Tinder, Duolingo, Dropbox, Snapchat, and Headspace. 

Apps usually run their own bounty programs on a smaller scale. This is the first time that Google itself has offered a reward on behalf of developers. 

Here’s how it works. If you find a security vulnerability in one of the participating apps, you can report that vulnerability to the developer, and work with them to fix it. When the problem has been resolved, the Android Security team will pay you $1,000 as a reward, on top of any reward you get from the app developer. 

Google will be collecting data on the vulnerabilities and sharing it (anonymized) with other developers who may be exposed to the same problems. 

For HackerOne, it’s about attracting more and better participants in bounty programs. A developer who uncovers a vulnerability in Tinder will now receive a the cash bonus from Google in addition to the money they receive from Tinder’s program. 

“Participating apps that already have a bug bounty program will now have the opportunity to attract an even more diverse set of hackers,” Adam Bacchus, HackerOne’s chief bounty officer, told Mashable.

The 13 apps currently participating were selected based on their popularity among Android users. After a trial period with the small group, Google will open the program to the larger community.

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