Alphabet’s Project to Restore Wireless Service in Puerto Rico With Balloons Gets FCC Approval

Project Loon has already proven its real-world usefulness once this year.

The FCC has approved an experimental license for Alphabet, Inc’s Project Loon to attempt to restore wireless service to storm-ravaged Puerto Rico using its high-altitude balloons, according to FCC Chief of Staff Matthew Berry.

Though the Loon technology is not entirely proven, it could help speed the restoration of vital communications as the U.S. territory works to recover from the devastation of Hurricane Maria.

It could also help prove the business case for Loon, one of the experimental “moonshots” debuted as part of Google, and now housed under Alphabet subsidiary X.

More than 80% of Puerto Rico’s cellular towers are still out of service more than two weeks after the arrival there of Hurricane Maria, and nearly one-third of the island’s counties have no service, according to the FCC. Rebuilding conventional cell towers will be “a long road,” T-Mobile told CNN, thanks to challenges including not just the cost of construction, but, according to some wireless companies, theft and crime against their operations.

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Loon balloons, which carry communications equipment as high as 20 kilometers into the atmosphere, would circumvent those earthbound hurdles — at least temporarily. Loon recently rolled out internet and LTE service in Peru after flooding there, reportedly providing coverage for an area roughly the size of Switzerland. The balloons that were deployed in Peru, in fact, were launched from Puerto Rico.

However, restoring communications to Puerto Rico may be more challenging. Loon requires local partners to work, and in the case of the Peru project, relationships with wireless providers and other players were already in place. But in earlier statements to Mashable, a Loon spokesman said the Puerto Rico effort would be “a little more complicated because we’re starting from scratch.”

Contracting with governments for deployment in disaster zones could eventually become a revenue stream for Loon, which debuted in 2013. Alphabet has begun ramping up pressure for moonshots to generate revenue, partly in hopes of diversifying beyond the search-driven advertising business that still makes up the overwhelming majority of its profits.

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AT&T Wireless Workers Try To Bring Political Pressure To End Contract Stalemate

Negotiations have dragged on since February.

As a contract standoff between AT&T and 21,000 unionized workers in its mobile business drags into a eighth month, the employees are trying to increase political pressure on the carrier.

So far, 255 state and local politicians have sent letters to AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson backing the workers, the Communications Workers of America union says. Among the senders are six Democratic senators and numerous members of California’s delegation in the House of Representatives.

“While we are aware of the changes that have taken place in the telecommunications industry, we know that AT&T wireless workers are the driving force behind your most profitable division,” 12 members of the Arizona House of Representatives wrote to Stephenson in one recent letter. “They deserve to share in the company’s success and growth.”

Still, AT&T does not appear moved by the campaign or earlier moves by the mobile workers in 36 states and Washington, D.C., including a protest outside Apple headquarters for the debut of new iPhones last month and a short strike in May that forced many wireless stores to close for a weekend.

Although the workers have concerns about wages, health benefits, and other issues, job security and sales commission rates appear to be at the center of the dispute. To highlight the issue of call center jobs being outsourced to foreign countries, some AT&T workers traveled to the Dominican Republic in early May to meet with their counterparts there who now handle AT&T customer service calls.

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AT&T said on Friday that it has been in touch with the letter writers and plans to continue to bargain with the workers, whose contract expired in February, to reach a “fair” agreement . “We regularly communicate with our stakeholders regarding labor issues and bargaining, and we’ve done so where we’ve received any letters from legislators,” an AT&T spokesman said.

The CWA says AT&T won’t negotiate over job security at call centers and retail stores where many of the employees work. “AT&T has increased its profits by cutting workers’ commissions, refused to bargain over job security even as it cut hundreds of call center jobs this year alone, and increasingly moved to low-wage contractors for its retail and call center operations,” Dennis Trainor, vice president for CWA district 1, said in a statement. “That’s not how America’s largest telecom should be acting.”

AT&T t has a long history of labor peace, though the May strike interrupted a run of more than four years without a walkout. The company says it has reached 32 agreements covering some 145,000 workers since the beginning of 2015. The strike in May, which also included 17,000 workers in AT&T’s telecom business, followed last year’s bitter, seven week strike at Verizon vz .

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FCC: There’s ‘Effective Competition’ in the Wireless Market

A divided Federal Communications Commission on Tuesday approved a report that found for the first time since 2009 there is “effective competition” in the wireless market, a finding that could help Sprint and T-Mobile to merge.

Reuters reported last week that the wireless carriers are close to agreeing on tentative terms on a deal to merge, a major breakthrough in efforts to merge the third and fourth largest U.S. wireless carriers.

The transaction would significantly consolidate the U.S. telecommunications market and represent the first transformative U.S. merger with significant antitrust risk since President Donald Trump’s inauguration.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said “most reasonable people see a fiercely competitive marketplace” citing intense price competition carriers. “This is strong, incontrovertible evidence,” he added.

The FCC approved the report by a 3-2 vote.

A decade ago there were seven major U.S. wireless carriers and today the largest four carriers led by Verizon Communications and AT&T control 98.8% of the U.S. market, according to the FCC.

The FCC would need to approve any merger as would the Justice Department. In 2014, the FCC and Justice Department told the carriers they would not back a merger and the companies abandoned merger talks.

FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel referenced the potential looming merger.

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“While this report celebrates the presence of four nationwide wireless providers, let’s be mindful that a transaction may soon be announced that seeks to combine two of these four,” Rosenworcel said.

“For my part, any transaction before us will require someone to explain how consumers will benefit, how prices will not rise, and how innovation will not dissipate in the face of so much more industry concentration.”

She added: “Someone will also need to explain how having fewer potential big bidders in upcoming spectrum auctions will not render our most potent distribution mechanism substantially less powerful.”

FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn said the competition report “takes a decidedly myopic view of the ecosystem, and instead focuses only on ‘competition in the provision of mobile wireless services.’ This is like a doctor looking at one organ and pronouncing a patient fit as a fiddle.”

FCC Republican Commissioner Mike O’Rielly praised the report and noted intense wireless competition has led to price cuts, despite carriers investing $ 200 billion in networks over the last six years.

AT&T said in a statement the report shows “with an array of providers, pricing plans and service offerings to choose from, there’s no question that consumers are reaping the benefits of a competitive industry.”

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