22 March 2010

Niue #8: A Kick in the Pants

Monday started with a meeting with the Minister (acting head of state while the Premier is out of the country) and the principals in the project. What's the status? I told him the system was installed and running, but there were problems:
  1. The antenna was at an odd angle because of hardware problems.
  2. IUSN's 900 MHz network was interfering with us and limiting our range.
  3. Something (probably IUSN) was interfering with our 5 GHz link to the tower.
  4. Tim's analog gateway box was still in New Zealand.
We agreed there wasn't much we could do about IUSN or New Zealand's customs office on short notice, but we might fix the antenna problem and still make some calls to the outside world via a VoIP carrier and Telecom's satellite link.

The Minister called the Director of Agriculture and Fisheries. The Director called their marine repair shop and told them to expect us later in the morning. The marine repair shop had welding equipment and good stocks of stainless steel plate and threaded rod. Surely, they could build us an antenna mount. Next stop, Telecom. We wanted to talk to the technicians about the antenna mount to be sure we were building the right thing. This time, Toki and Kone drew on the whiteboard the picture I wish I had seen back in January: a detailed, dimensioned drawing of the TV tower hand rail and their preferred antenna mounting technique. It was a revelation. We went to the fisheries shop and showed the mechanics what we needed. They got to work. A little later, the Minister stopped by to check the progress.

(Dept. of Fisheries marine repair shop. On a remote island, you learn to work with what you have.)

While the shop worked, we played "telephone". Tim provisioned a few handsets with 2xxx numbers, including "2009", a woman with a Fijian SIM who got accidentally included in the test group. (She was amazed when one of us dialed her on a wrong number.) Speech calls were spotty in Alofi, but SMS was working reasonably well and we were texting just because we could.

That evening, we went to the BCN studios for a radio interview and call-in program. One of the signs on the wall said "Less English, More Niuean", so Frank did most of the talking.

The interviewer was kind enough to make notes for me in English summarizing the calls to the program. One stuck out as particularly important for OpenBTS. It was something like, "We have the old AMPS system and we can't fix it when it breaks. We have the Chinese TV system and we can't fix it when it breaks. How will the new mobile system be any different?" That's a darn good question, and the answer, I hope, is a good argument for open designs: Telecom Niue has a full bill of materials for their BTS unit, a complete description of the electronics and all of the source code to the software that is running in it. Telecom Niue has all of the information they need to build another BTS just like the one we left behind, even the names of the vendors who supplied the components to us. And I would hope that if they post to openbts-disucss, people there will help them even if we are not around.

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