Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands are still a mess after Hurricane Maria, with the official rescue and recovery efforts being criticised for being slow to bring basics like food, water, power and fuel - and telecommunications - to the disaster-struck population.

This despite the two being United States territories which in theory affords island nations and their inhabitants all the rights and privileges of mainland Americans.

Getting telecommunications up and running in a disaster area is a high-priority task, and US mobile telcos have deployed both cellsites on wheels (COWs) and larger base stations onboard trucks to re-establish service.

It's slow going though, and over four-fifths of all cell sites in Puerto Rico are still down, and 57 per cent are out of service in the US Virgin Islands. Many parts of both islands have no cellular service at all, two weeks after the hurricane.


So to kick the mobile service restoration effort into high gear, Google has been given an experimental licence to deploy its Project Loon broadband balloons to beam down 4G/ Long Term Evolution signals to the island from the stratosphere.

Project Loon as you may recall was launched in New Zealand in 2013 and has been deployed prior to Puerto Rico, in flood-struck Peru in May this year by Alphabet, the new umbrella company that now runs Google and X which handles the balloons.

Tesla meanwhile is sending batteries to Puerto Rico to help store energy generated by solar power, and Facebook has done something weird with Mark Zuckerberg starring in "live virtual reality", along with the American Red Cross, to "restore connectivity and rebuild communities".

It's great that Alphabet X and Tesla are helping out, but it does at the same time set a disturbing precedent.

The problem here then is not that X and other tech companies provide assistance, but moreso that it is delivered not through a government agency which has specific processes to follow.

What do we call a country that cannot provide direct infrastructure aid to its own disaster areas? That's a failed state.

The experimental licence is not some planned forethought by the US government, but seems more of a desperate measure to provide the restoration work it struggles with. If Project Loon and the Tesla batteries work out, the US and other governments will be tempted to rely on especially tech companies even more for direct disaster relief because it's there, and someone else's problem to manage.

Taken to the logical conclusion, it raises the question what the state should provide for citizens.

It's possible that such a restructuring with businesses being deeply wedged into society, providing functions that we now have government agencies for, would work in some form.

Nevertheless, such a scenario is uncharted waters and something we need to talk about much more than what we have done. Once we're there, we won't be going back to what we had before.