Theft, vandalism affecting rural cell force, suppliers insist

A senior manager at Mandeville Regional Hospital said the facility was having issues with cell and data service. (Photo: Kasey Williams)

Poor cell reception and a weak signal in rural communities spell disaster in an emergency.

In fact, some rural Jamaicans say it’s something they’ve wanted for some time. On a regular day, some wave their cell phones in the air or walk to a certain place in their community, while others have just quit that they will never get cell service and signal in their rural communities.

However, telecommunications providers Digicel and Flow, which provide coverage of 99 and 97 percent of the population respectively, have both pointed to theft and vandalism of service equipment in rural areas as an obstacle to providing a adequate service.

In July 2021, Romaine Wright’s wife said she called 119 for 30 minutes in their community of Swamp Road, St Thomas, after he was shot twice by thugs. But with no signal and no vehicle to transport Wright, she said the 29-year-old bled on the pavement and died.

The woman is convinced that things could have turned out differently if she had had a better phone signal to call for help.

“He just bled without help. All my call to 119 did not ring. This affected the result. It was really, really bad. The signal here is terrible. We have no signal. We usually have to walk to a place further up the road called Lloyds to pick up the signal. It’s about a 20 minute walk from my house. You have to go somewhere and hold the phone. Fair WhatsApp people mostly use here,” the man’s mother of two children told the Jamaica Observer.

Several residents lamented what they said was a story of poor phone signal, fearing a similar situation could happen again.

Digicel Chief Information and Technology Officer Chandrika Samaroo says the theft and vandalism of service equipment in rural areas causes disruptions that pose serious risk and inconvenience to consumers and businesses.

But Digicel’s chief technical and information officer, Chandrika Samaroo, told the Sunday Observer that the area of ​​Swamp Road, St Thomas be included in the service expansion and improvement exercise that the company has been carrying out in the parish over the past year.

“In the same way that we delivered 10x faster data speeds with the introduction of LTE service in the parish, we are currently installing a new cell site in the Lloyds area which will significantly improve service to our customers in Swamp Road and surroundings. the next four weeks. We want to thank residents for their patience as we strive to deliver the premium network experience they deserve,” said Samaroo.

Kayon Mitchell, Director of Communications for Flow, said: “We have a mobile site in Port Morant which provides coverage for the Swamp Road community and surrounding areas so our customers should not encounter any coverage issues in this area. area.

Kayon Mitchell, director of communications at Flow, said that in 2021 the company faced more than 590 incidents of vandalism and theft of cables, batteries, generators and other network elements.

A 2020 study published by the Inter-American Institute of Agricultural Sciences (IICA) titled Rural connectivity in Latin America and the Caribbeansaid connectivity generates distinct disadvantages that explain the relatively lower level of well-being in rural areas.

Grouping the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean into three categories – cluster with low significant rural connectivity, cluster with medium level significant rural connectivity and cluster with medium to high level significant rural connectivity – the study listed the Jamaica, El Salvador, Belize, Bolivia, Peru, Honduras, Venezuela, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Guyana in the low connectivity cluster.

According to the study, differences in connectivity generate distinct disadvantages that explain “the relatively lower level of well-being in rural territories and the persistent poverty that affects a significant part of the rural population.

“Disabilities reach a truly unacceptable point when physical connectivity and inadequate telecommunications isolate these areas from access to knowledge and innovation, which in turn fuels problems that extend far beyond the rural environment,” he said.

A senior member of staff at Mandeville Regional Hospital in Manchester told the Sunday Observer that cellular and data service is “severe” at the facility.

“Regular cell service fluctuates, but you may have better cell phone service than you will have data service,” the individual said.

Also, Louise Thomas, 72, of 19 Miles, Sandy Bay, Clarendon, said she had to attend hospital because of her condition, she was worried about what might happen if she died. emergency when trying to make calls.

“I worry all the time. I’m really worried because it’s only me and my husband living. I’m 72 and he’s 84. I have to phone the doctors and the phone cuts off every now and then, especially cellphone. All the time people call and say they can’t hear from me,” she said.

Information technology expert Craig Powe told the Sunday Observer that Jamaica is one of the most difficult places to build network infrastructure because it is mountainous.

“When you think of St Thomas, which is made up of hills and valleys, technically radio signals cannot travel through a mountain. They have to lean around the mountain to talk to other radio towers. You need to have radio towers for virtually every hill to provide good service to an area, and it’s a lot of work and money to do that, and very few people are likely to be in each area. It is the same problem for every deep rural area which is also aggravated by the topography,” he said.

“That’s why you always have these weird places in Kingston that always have dead zones…because the science is very precise and a clump of trees or how the shapes of hills and valleys can overtake areas .”

Powe pointed out that rural areas are classified as such because they are far from major towns and other key infrastructure, with fewer people living there.

“More trees, more hills by nature, because they are not connected to the main cities or infrastructures. Everywhere in the world, it’s just harder to justify building all the intricate stuff to maintain them and that’s further away too. Both providers do a good job of providing coverage to as many people as possible in a cost-effective way. Someone else, like a government, should fund support for building expensive towers in unprofitable locations.

Wallace told the Sunday Observer that Flow did a lot of work, but pointed to access challenges, such as topography and illegal occupation.

“On the service delivery side, we continue to struggle with theft and vandalism. In fact, in 2021 we had over 590 incidents including cables, batteries, generators and other network elements. This means we must also invest heavily in an extensive and comprehensive asset protection program as well as restoring service to thousands of affected residential and commercial customers,” Wallace said.

Wallace said Flow has continued its “Mission Connect program” and remains at the forefront of investments to bring connectivity to more unserved and underserved communities across Jamaica.

“Since 2020, Flow has accelerated the expansion of its fiber network to over 500 communities across Jamaica, reaching over 170,000 homes. Many of these communities are outside the Kingston, St Andrew, St Catherine area as we connect more Jamaicans to the online space.

“Although we are in a competitive industry, we are the only provider that is constantly investing and expanding our fixed network in rural, unserved and underserved communities in Jamaica. To this end, we have invested over $40 billion since 2016 to connect more communities and we will continue until every household served by electricity is covered with fibre.

Graphic by Romardo Lyons

Samaroo said Digicel was also suffering from theft and vandalism, causing disruptions that pose serious risk and inconvenience to consumers and businesses, while hampering the continuity of essential services and infrastructure that depend on connectivity.

“Theft and/or vandalism of backup power sources has caused both service instability and extended outages in the past. We view this as an existential threat to the provision of a reliable network. Importantly, we have seen an increase in incidents of vandalism to our fiber optic network cables, which we believe is the work of thieves who continue to search for copper cables erected along the roads. he told the Sunday Observer.

Samaroo said Digicel does not operate a copper-based network because its network is 100% pure fiber. He said this “superior” technology is key to delivering blazingly fast speeds to homes and businesses, at a massive $31 billion outlay.

“We wish to use this forum to urge people to stop the practice of cutting telecommunications cables of any type. It is a dangerous, selfish and illegal act,” Samaroo added.

He added that while the company monitors its network 24/7 and responds instantly to these types of deliberate damage, it ends up diverting limited resources to repairing cables, which can take up to at eight o’clock to repair.

He noted that people have been charged for this. However, he told the Sunday Observer the conviction rate is low.

“Very often, people convicted of this crime – simple larceny – receive a suspended sentence or end up paying a small fine. Of course, the charge and the sentences do not reflect the seriousness of the crime. For years, we have been advocating for dedicated legislation that provides tougher penalties for the theft and vandalism of cell site equipment, as this practice has serious implications for national security and safety.

Meanwhile, Wallace added that commercial power outages, electrical cable burns, illegal connections and vehicles destroying cables also play a role in the disruption of service delivery.

“Some of the steps we have taken to address these issues include bolstering our copper network with fiber, proactive maintenance and monitoring, while adding capacity to handle the increased demand on our fixed and mobile networks. For 2022, we will expand our fiber network to over 28 communities across St Mary, Portland and St Thomas, bringing our total expansion in the region over the past two years to over 50 communities and developments.

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