Why Isn't Google Launching Its Modular Ara Smartphone in Puerto Rico?

By Alissa Walker on at

In January Google announced that Ara, its highly anticipated modular smartphone, would debut first in Puerto Rico as part of a pilot project. Today, Google says it’s not launching Ara there after all, and that it’s “re-routing” its plans. What gives?

Some are wondering if the Google-Alphabet announcement is the reason for the shakeup, and that might very well be part of it. But what no one is talking about is the fact that Puerto Rico is in the midst of a catastrophic economic crisis—not to mention a drought so bad that the territory has implemented water rationing. It would be crazy to launch a tech project in Puerto Rico right now.

But let’s back up. At I/O earlier this year, Google’s Ara team said it was launching in Puerto Rico because of the diversity of users and existing phone market. About 77% of the country accesses the internet by smartphone only, which makes it a great place to test the Ara’s stripped-down browsing features.

Why Isn't Google Launching Its Modular Ara Smartphone in Puerto Rico?

Then the project went totally quiet—there were a few months without a peep. Although there’s no official statement from Google about the change in direction, the Project Ara team confirmed as much in a series of tweets today, including the fact that they might come back to Puerto Rico sometime later:

But this is probably a good move: It would be pointless and futile to test the product in Puerto Rico under some pretty dire circumstances.

First of all the US Territory is on the brink of economic collapse—it’s being called the “Greece of the Caribbean.” We’re talking defaulting on $72 billion (£46 billion) in debts. If Google launches a phone project and suddenly the economy shut down, it would be particularly difficult to gauge success. And additionally—not that this is their primary concern—but it would reflect poorly on Ara.

Now, because people are so apprehensive about the economy, there’s currently a mass exodus from Puerto Rico, with other American cities bracing for the inevitable flood of immigrants. According to PBS, 150,000 Puerto Ricans are projected to leave in the next five years. So imagine you launch your test group and half of them end up leaving for the mainland. Not good.

Finally, Puerto Rico’s day-to-day infrastructure is in trouble. Stores are closed and food is prohibitively expensive. I mentioned water rationing before—now entire cities are having their water shut off for days at at time. I don’t mean they’re being told to cut back, I mean the municipal water is being turned off. People’s livelihood is at stake and helping to test a phone will likely be residents’ last priorities.

Project Ara may announce a different reason for why they’re launching elsewhere first, but let’s hope after all this they do indeed come back to Puerto Rico. Whatever happens next politically, I can only imagine this will not make life easy for the territory’s residents who have had to accept some pretty crippling austerity measures. They’ll probably be looking for more affordable and reliable options for accessing information. It would be a great place to showcase Google’s commitment to using technology to solve problems for all.