Call of the wild

Practically all modern cities have a wealth of communication options: fixed, GSM, GPRS and, in a very few, 3G. But travel a few miles from the centre and your options begin to narrow. CommsMEA takes a look at what's on offer.

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By  Philip Fenton Published  March 3, 2002

Introduction|~||~||~|The distances and terrain that need to be covered in rural areas often make fixed communications impractical. Wireless communication is clearly the answer, but there's a further problem. People like to enjoy the countryside: no one wants to see a huge metal antenna blighting the landscape and spoiling the view. Enter the stealth pole, an antenna camouflaged to blend in with the surroundings.

Wireless infrastructure manufacturer Alan Dick produces a wide range of stealth poles designed to fit into almost any rural landscape. The company offers a Scots Pine, popular in Europe and a palm tree that is more suited to Middle Eastern climes. A relatively new development is the lightning tree - an antenna disguised as a dead tree trunk so that it doesn't stand out when the surrounding trees lose their leaves. Alan Dick also offers antennas disguised as sign posts, windmills and even church and mosque windows.

The stealth pole is basically an ordinary steel monopole disguised as a tree with artificial bark, branches and even leaves. Access is via a ladder within the trunk or step bolts attached to the exterior.
In some areas though aesthetics is not a consideration. In fact in one instance Ugandan mobile operator MTN Publicom decided it wanted to draw as much attention to its solution as possible.

Ugandan fishermen using Lake Victoria were complaining that they needed telephone access to communicate with their customers and families whilst out on the lake, as well as to report any danger. Logistically, setting up fixed phones proved to be too difficult so, no doubt sensing a unique marketing opportunity, MTN Publicom hit upon a novel solution. The company decided to construct a solar powered GSM pay phone in the lake itself.

"The fishermen were complaining that they'd like a payphone in the area, so MTN took the opportunity of using their requirements to do a good marketing campaign with the solar booth and a GSM phone," explains Garth Nell, sales and marketing manager at Remkor, the company that designed and built the booth.

"It's actually installed in the lake itself, so the fisherman will paddle up in his boat, make his call and off he goes again. It's about 70 or 80 metres off the shoreline."

The construction of the booth in Lake Victoria was the result of several years of partnership between Remkor and MTN Publicom. The relationship began with MTN Publicom installing fixed line, mains powered booths throughout Uganda. As demand in urban areas began to be satisfied MTN looked further a field and began setting up GSM payphones in rural areas, the advantage being that it is far easier to simply drop a GSM payphone in an area with no fixed infrastructure than to lay cables. But lack of fixed telephone lines was not the only problem: the nation's power grid was far from universal, making mains powered telephones impossible in some rural areas.

"They soon realised there were a lot of places they would like to install the GSM payphone but they didn't have access to power or the power was unreliable," says Nell. "They started some dialogue with us saying that because they have a GSM payphone they can literally install it anywhere: the problem is power. We started talking then about solar power and how to go about it."

Remkor designed a booth that used 20W solar panels to provide power. At night the booths run off a battery which is charged by the panels in the daytime.

"We did a few units for them which they then installed in and around Kampala in Uganda for testing purposes," explains Nell. "They found that the power supplied by the booth was more than adequate to keep the phone going: even if it rained for a few days, the phone would still have enough power. From then on they decided that this would be the way to go, specifically for the areas they were looking at: most of the rollout is really intended to be for the rural areas of Uganda."

Even if there were no sun whatsoever the battery can last for several days, explains Nell. "If we use the 20 watt panel and a GSM phone it goes for about four to five days, but we also have an additional battery that we can put in with a microprocessor controlled power regulator, which can extend that to around seven days. That's assuming there's no sun whatsoever."

Since coming up with the design Remkor have installed several hundred of the booths, the most famous of course being the Lake Victoria booth installed in October 2000.

"There's quite a few hundred [booths] out there, but we're not into the thousands yet," explains Nell. "Typically if someone was installing a payphone project you'd find maybe five or six per cent would actually be installed in the far out regions where there's no power."

Uganda, with its vast, sparsely populated open spaces, provides an ideal testing ground for wireless communications solutions. In order to increase the efficiency and reduce the costs of constructing a rural telecommunications network in the country, Remkor has designed a long distance cellular antenna which significantly increases the operating range of a GSM phone.

"We've designed a long distance antenna that's built into the booth and operates further out on the network than a normal cellular phone does," says Nell. "That has a range of about 35km, so if you're out on the lake and there's a transmitting tower or base station on the fringe of the lake you could travel 35km - a typical cell phone operates at about 12km or 13km."

There are times when building even a terrestrial wireless infrastructure is impractical: to serve one small isolated site for example. It is in these locations that satellite solutions are particularly appropriate, since the infrastructure is already in orbit, says Steven Rogers, director of corporate marketing at Inmarsat.

"The advantage of a satellite is that the network and infrastructure is there," he says. "What you need is just a payphone for example. From an infrastructure point of view the economics are very clear: our network is there and they just have to have access to it."

In the event of an emergency in an isolated area communications are vitally important. Imagine a crash in a remote tunnel: there may be no mobile coverage and no fixed line for miles. That's the problem faced by engineers in New Zealand who were commissioned to improve emergency access along State Highway 94, which winds through the southwest corner of New Zealand's South Island. The road has to climb the 2000-metre high Livingstone and Humboldt Mountains, where commuters pass through the 1.2km long Homer Tunnel. The tunnel is blocked at least once a year by avalanches and accidents are not unheard of as drivers wind through the narrow tunnel. There was no mobile coverage and the nearest phone was over 20km away, so the engineers were charged with installing an emergency communications system that could alert the authorities in the event of an accident.

They decided to install an Inmarsat mini-M satellite phone which would allow effective communications without the hassle of maintaining a terrestrial network. "Because of its remoteness and the tight deployment parameters, the Homer Tunnel project was a unique problem for which mobile satellite technology was clearly the best solution," said Stewart Hall, communications technician with Works Infrastructure, a Dunedin-based company that maintains the stretch of highway from Te Anau to Milford Sound.

"When there was no power, no phone lines, no mobile phone coverage - you're here alone with the Kea's [a native bird] and lightning. It's right in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by mountains. The use of mobile satellite communications was the best and only option for bringing communications to a place like this."

The phone is recharged using solar panels in the summer with a generator topping up the batteries in the winter months. The actual Inmarsat unit is located in a tamper proof enclosure where it serves as a transceiver connected to a more conventional emergency phone specially designed to withstand extremes of heat and cold. Users of the phone are presented with just two buttons, one for emergency help and the other for breakdown assistance, which then connect them to a call centre in Dunedin, New Zealand.

"This is an extremely rugged bit of terrain and about as remote as you get in New Zealand - yet it's a surprisingly important tourist route as well," said Andrew Wilson, satellite business director of ROCOM Wireless, the reseller enlisted to install the system. "While satellite communications aren't always the obvious choice, they can often achieve the objective more cost effectively than other alternatives."

One recent development is the increasing use of video phones by journalists in remote areas. By using Inmarsat's GAN system, which provides data speeds of 64 Kb/s, reporters can send live video without the need for bulky equipment.

While the images appear crude, the correspondents' faces flickering slightly from the pixelation, they provide more gripping viewing than the voice-only live reports of previous excursions to far-flung locations, which were usually accompanied for visual interest only by simple maps.

The difference is the presence of the TH2 "Talking Head" videophone. Without this piece of equipment the transmission of live video from a remote place like Afghanistan would require a satellite uplink facility comprising at least a ton of recording and broadcast gear. Such gear is usually housed inside a van and requires a crew of three to four to operate it.

Moving all that equipment is a large and difficult operation, especially in a war zone. But, free of the constraints of handling a ton of equipment, television reporters can operate virtually single-handedly. A lone reporter or a team of two can be operating in an extremely remote or sensitive area in a matter of hours, rather than days.

In essence, video and audio from the field is sent via a single, simple telephone call. In the past, broadcasting companies were limited to landline telephones or intermittent mobile phones to do 'live audio phoners' from the field (basically a live radio report), but now dramatic video footage can be added in most cases.
Many news agencies will actually use two Inmarsat phones, explains Rogers. "We see a lot of them joining two GAN units together to get 128Kb/s and in the US they've just done their first broadcast joining four together to get 256 Kb/s."

People travelling in remote areas can also benefit from mobile satellite communications, both to keep in touch with friends and relatives and to ensure that help is always at hand should in an emergency. Raleigh International is a youth development charity that enables young people to work on community projects around the world.

Last year a trip was arranged to Mongolia by Dominic O'Neill, country director of Raleigh International. The visit was to last two months, during which time the young people would work on various project sites in the Gobi desert. The nearest telephone was a day's drive away, so the group decided to take an Ottercom 'Storm' Inmarsat GAN terminal with them.

"The 'Storm' has not only withstood the rigours of travelling on Mongolian roads in the back of my Land Rover, but the high speed of data transmission via the Inmarsat GAN means that I can quickly check e-mail and make full use of the Internet facilities such as NetMeeting," says O'Neill.

"It kept me in regular contact with my project sites around the Gobi and with our communications field base in Ulaan Baatar. I was able to hold several videoconferences and even launched the opening of one of our new straw bale clinics live on the Internet via the 'Storm' satellite phone. The reliability of both the unit and the high quality connectivity of the Inmarsat satellite network gives me total confidence when travelling between project sites and enables me to concentrate on the job of running expeditions without worrying about communications."||**||

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