New Research

Responding to Disaster:
Lessons from Telecommunications Service in Peru

University of Toronto

Peru’s internet infrastructure is highly susceptible to natural disasters and remain nonexistent in some parts of the country—specifically parts of the Peruvian Amazon rainforest. Through a public-private partnership between the government of Peru and Loon, an Alphabet Inc subsidiary company that provides High-altitude Platform Stations (HAPS) in the form of balloons, previously unserved areas were provided with internet access and critical information was shared through restored connectivity in the wake of several large-scale natural disasters. While Loon’s operation in Peru did not achieve commercial success, resulting in the company’s shut down in January 2021, this research will analyze how Loon provided internet connectivity to hard-to-reach populations in Peru. The study will also explore how private-public partnerships can provide affordable commercial internet access around the world.

The Hard to Reach

Communities without access to internet connectivity due to lack of infrastructure, natural disasters or remote regions.

Key Takeaways

Although Loon shut down in early 2021, it delivered on its objectives for disaster relief. At the same time, the company’s experience reflects the broad challenges in making a transition from disaster relief to the permanent provision of services. The challenges and successes can guide future private stakeholders wishing to partner with public entities to service hard-to-reach communities. Here are some suggestions to make public-private partnerships more successful in their endeavours.

  1. During the short-term implementation of Internet services, Loon had success thanks to direct communication with their government partners. In disaster-relief contexts, this communication is essential for the success of relief efforts, and will facilitate trust between the partners, making the project more likely to have long-term success.
  2. Prior to shutting down, Loon was set to partner with the IpT — highlighting the success and viability of the IpT project. When dealing with vulnerable populations in hard-to-reach areas, the number of partners must not be an afterthought. Successful public-private partnerships must be willing to incorporate additional partners who have better knowledge of the target population.
  3. One of the major challenges Google Loon faced was the transition from the short-term disaster- relief project to a long-term commercialized product because these are two distinct projects with expectations that did not align. Future PPPs will benefit from defining their expectations immediately and recognizing that actions taken to support one project may very well impede success in another.
  4. In developing a telecommunications strategy for hard-to-reach areas, considering the target audience is instrumental in the project’s success. It is necessary to consider several dimensions and stakeholders, including the difference between rural and urban communities, the local context that determines the willingness for technological development, the permission of municipal and federal governments to operate and the international community’s involvement.

Acknowledgements

This research was made possible through the Reach Alliance, a partnership between the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy and the Mastercard Center for Inclusive Growth. Research was also funded by the Ralph and Roz Halbert Professorship of Innovation at the Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy. We express our gratitude and appreciation to those we met and interviewed. We are also grateful to support staff, including translators, who helped make our research possible.

This research was vetted by and received approval from the Ethics Review Board at the University of Toronto. Research was conducted remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic.