24 March 2010

Niue #9: Up and Running, for a Little While

On our second Tuesday in Niue, we were finally going to fix our antenna, using the parts fabricated the day before at the government's marine repair shop. We met the Telecom techs at the tower, turned off the BTS PA and broadcast equipment for safety, and got to work.

About half an hour later, we got a call on the AMPS phone at the tower site. It was BCN asking if we had turned off their FM transmitter. It turns out that there had been a miscommunication about which morning we would be working, so this was an unscheduled outage. We explained that the techs were already up the tower and everyone agreed that the safest move was just to let them finish their work. A couple of hours later, the BTS antenna was fixed and everyone was back on the air.

(James Mataele (upper) and Kone Magatogia (lower) installing the antenna mount on the "Chinese TV tower" at Sekena, about 53 meters up. Photos courtesy of Toki Talagi.)

We spent the next afternoon and morning doing some coverage tests. We were still loosing range because of interference from IUSN's US-stye 900 MHz network, but we could use downlink RSSI to estimate what the uplink coverage would look like were IUSN to stop jamming us. It looked like we would have good outdoor coverage in Alofi and all along Alofi Bay down to Halagigie, about 6.5 km from the tower site. Indoor coverage would probably be good in North Alfoi and marginal in most of the rest of town. We had marginal coverage in the hospital parking lot, but none at the airport. There was room for improvement and solid coverage of the populated areas of Niue will definitely require additional sites. That was all in line with the Hata suburban propagation model. The rural model did not apply; the bush vegetation was too dense. Still, in a lot of places in and around Alofi, signals were strong enough for the system to work, even with the interference.

(Harvind at Opaahi Reef, 4.5 km from site, "talking to Allison" at a very strong -65 dBm.)

Back at the Telecom building, Tim was trying to connect OpenBTS to the rest of the world, despite the missing Xorcom analog gateway. Using the new Asterisk-Skype interface, he provisioned a few specific handsets to support calls to a few specific international numbers, just to prove it could be done. For about 2 days, a lucky few of us where making international calls from mobile handsets in Niue at about US$0.03 per minute. Ironically, it was easier (and much cheaper) to call the UK and Japan than to call a wired phone in the same room.

During all of this testing, IUSN's WISP was still just as broken as it had been the week before, except now they had someone to blame. On Wednesday morning, IUSN forwarded me a sample complaint:

"Morning all,

To my surprise my internet is working this morning at 5:30am. I've had no internet connection since Thursday last week. Thanks to the GSM mobile people whom are here on the island doing testing and in the process ...... blocking internet to all users north of the NDB bank and Telecom NIUE. Apparently they put up a machine at Telecom NIUE with the signal beamed at the Makapu tower using the same frequency as IUSN is using. No notification whatsoever - how rude!! They even deny that their machine is blocking internet for some people.... and yesterday even turn off the radio to parts of NIUE without letting the general public and BCN know. Anyway, I hope this will be sorted out today!!"

The reported days and times of the service outage did not correlate with our activities, but IUSN didn't let ignorance and bad facts get in the way of good finger-pointing. By Wednesday afternoon, I was literally getting stopped in the street by angry old men shaking their fists at me and yelling, "Mr. St. Clair says you cut the internet!! Internet very important for this island!!" Disgruntled IUSN subscribers were showing up at the guesthouse to harass us in person. I suspected that there was an active campaign of blame and defamation going on somewhere. (If you wonder why I have no kind words for IUSN's operators...) My suspicions were confirmed when saw this:

To: All Users

Re: Wifi Interference

IUS-N has learned only recently that technical consultants have been on the island for the past two weeks and have been testing a wireless GSM phone system which may have been interrupting your ability to connect with IUS-N's WiFi services over the past few days, in particular, in the Alofi North area. We have learned they will continue to do those tests, sporadically, with no warning, today and possibly in the future.

IUS-N is not able to control the timing of the consultants' tests, nor are the consultants informing IUS-N of the dates or times of these tests.

This email is our warning to users that you likely can expect more unannounced WiFi interference in the Alofi North area today, and possibly in the future, without warning.

This interference may cause connection problems from your location.

If you do experience any problems connecting, or you have in the past few days, please email support@niue.nu with detailed information, to help us keep track of these events.


Richard StClair

Technical Manager, IUSN

Around 14:00 Wednesday, to satisfy public complaints, the Director of Telecommunications asked that we shut down all of our equipment. By 14:20 everything was powered off. Around 18:00, internet service was restored in Alofi. So what happened in those three and a half hours? We didn't know. I was still confident that we were not the cause of this week-long internet outage, but open minded enough to want a serious investigation. The problem is that the afternoon's sequence of events didn't provide any solid information about anything.

(While all of this was going on, a cruise ship anchored in Alofi Bay and tended 100 or so German tourists into town. In my best broken German, I greeted them "Guten Tag! Willkommen bei schönes Niue. And you should really be wearing a hat in this sun." Surreal for all involved.)


  1. You switched on your equipment - the internet went down. Only till you switched your stuff off, after the complaints from the private sector reached Niue Government, the whole of Alofi was back online. My access was running fine from the NDB bank 50 m behind the Telecom tower in the opposite direction after the Rocket Systems technician recommend I access the internet from there - I walk back to the commercial centre where your equipment was installed and it screwed up.
    You guys leave and the access is back to normal - how can you say that the wireless setup here is interefering with your gsm when its been here for more than 10 years? My business lost money thanks to your lack of communication with Internet Users Society of Niue. Plain and simple.

  2. Anonymous -

    Thanks for posting this. I want people to get a good sample of the kind of knee-jerk accusations we had to deal with while we were there. And you forgot to say "I'm not a technical person, but..." You are always supposed to say that before spewing this kind of stuff.

    The internet went down well before we switched on our equipment. It didn't come back up several hours after we switched off our equipment. The next day we switched on the equipment again and ... nothing bad happened! (That's in the next blog post.) To the best of my knowledge, the GSM equipment is on right now, and yet your internet is apparently working or you wouldn't be defacing my web pages with your nonsense.

    As for IUSN's 900 MHz gear interfering with GSM, it's pretty simple. The GSM uplink band, which is particularly sensitive to interference, runs 890-915 MHz. IUSN is running equipment at 906 and 912 MHz. It's simple arithmetic. The reason it worked find for 10 years is that nobody tried to install a modern digital cellular system until now.

    -- David (NOT anonymous)

  3. Yes, I checked with Telecom Niue and verified that the gear is still on, and yet internet works. Must have just me being on the island that broke everything.

  4. Agreed. Thank you ANONYMOUS. Thanks for posting an example of the baseless, uninformed hostility we received.

    Whatever you do, never let facts inform your judgement.

    Anyways, the next time your internet dies, you'll be able to grab your mobile phone and call us. Or even better, you can call IUS-N, who actually runs the internet. You're welcome.

  5. Come on boys, please cooperate. We have had half baked internet AND phone services ever since they were both introduced. How about we get it right now we have the opportunity to upgrade in both camps I believe. But you don't need to be a technician to realise this will only take conciliation and cooperation.

  6. Markx -

    (If you are who I think you are, I thank you for your work and am sorry I missed you during our visit.)

    Despite my uncharitable feelings toward IUSN, I actually agree with you. I see no technical reason why Niue cannot have GSM cellular service and a high-quality island-wide WISP at the same time. We have taken what steps we can to minimize the effects of interference from IUSN's 900 MHz system. We have conducted analysis and testing that indicate that our equipment is not disrupting IUSN's service. (We understand the importance of the WISP and have no desire to interrupt service. Despite the stories form IUSN, we are not callous about that.) We have disclosed our technical data at a much greater level of detail than IUSN. We have made specific technical recommendations to IUSN and to the government describing simple changes that IUSN can make that will allow the two systems to coexist with no interference at all. There's nothing left for us to do. It takes two to cooperate, and since we turned operation of the system over to Telecom, we are not even one of those two anymore.

    There is also the larger problem of spectrum management in Niue. IUSN is occupying much of the GSM900 uplink band, nearly all of the 2.4 GHz wifi band and nearly all of the frequencies commonly available for 802.11a systems. They use all of this spectrum to build a network where no single link needs to provide more than about 4 Mb/s. That is extremely wasteful. Legal or not, that makes it very difficult for anyone else to do anything wireless on the island and IUSN appears to be completely unwilling to alter their operations to accommodate others. IUSN's radios need to be regulated and such regulation will probably improve the quality of their service as well. I realize this is all something much easier said than done, since it is politically difficult to make IUSN do anything they do not want to do.

  7. Use the US cell band next time. Nothing there.

  8. At the time there was a very powerful AMPS system in that band.

  9. That is the problem with them not being regulated. The WISP wouldn't be able to survive anywhere else except their country how they are running their operations now. Pretty sad and if they did things right many could coexist and actually be more manageable.