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.