Theft, vandalism affecting rural cellular strength, providers insist
A senior staff member of Mandeville Regional Hospital says the facility has issues with cell and data service. (Photo: Kasey Williams)

Poor cellular reception and weak signal in rural communities spell disaster in times of emergency.

In fact, some residents in rural Jamaica say that is something they have pined over for quite some time. On a regular day, some hold up cellphones in the air or walk to a certain spot in their communities, while some have just resigned that they’ll never benefit from cellular service and signal in their rural communities.

However, telecommunications providers Digicel and Flow, who boast 99 and 97 per cent population coverage, respectively, have both pointed to the theft and vandalism of service equipment in rural areas as a deterrent to providing proper service.

In July 2021, Romaine Wright’s spouse 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 out on the roadway and died.

The woman is convinced that things could’ve gone differently if she had better phone signal to call for help.

“Him just bleed out with no assistance. All mi call 119 it wouldn’t ring. That affected the outcome. It was real, real bad. The signal up here is terrible. We don’t have any signal. We usually have to walk to a place further down the road called Lloyds to pick up signal. It is about a 20-minute walk from where I live. You have to go at a spot and hold up the phone. A just WhatsApp people mostly use up here,” the mother of the man’s two children told the Jamaica Observer.

Several residents lamented what they said has been a history of poor phone signal, concerned that a similar situation could be repeated.

Digicel’s chief technical and information officer Chandrika Samaroo says theft and vandalism of service equipment in rural areas cause disruptions that pose a severe risk and inconvenience to consumers and businesses.

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

“In the same way that we delivered 10 times faster data speeds with the introduction of LTE service to the parish, we are currently installing a new cell site in the Lloyds area that will significantly improve service to our customers in Swamp Road and surrounding areas over the next four weeks. We wish to thank the residents for their patience while we work to deliver the first-rate network experience that they deserve,” Samaroo said.

Kayon Mitchell, Flow’s director of communications, said: “We do have a mobile site in Port Morant that provides coverage for the Swamp Road community and its environs, so our customers should not be experiencing coverage issues in that area.”

Kayon Mitchell, Flow’s director of communications, said in 2021, the company faced over 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) entitled Rural Connectivity in Latin America and the Caribbean, said connectivity generates distinct disadvantages that explain the relatively lower level of well-being in rural territories.

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

The study said the differences with respect to connectivity generate distinct disadvantages that explain the “relatively lower level of well-being in rural territories and the persistent poverty that affects a significant portion of the rural population.

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

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

“The regular cell service fluctuates, but you may have better cellphone service than you will have data service,” the individual said.

Further, 72-year-old Louise Thomas of 19 Miles, Sandy Bay, in Clarendon said because she has to frequent the hospital because of her health condition, she is worried as to what may happen in an emergency when she tries to make calls.

“I worry all the time. I’m really worried because it’s just me and my husband live. I’m 72 and he’s 84. I have to make calls to doctors, and the telephone chips out from time to time, especially the cellphone. All the time people call and saying they can’t hear from me,” she said.

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

“When you think of St Thomas, which is hills and valleys, technically radio signals can’t pass through a mountain. They have to bend around the mountain to speak to other radio towers. You have to have radio towers for essentially every hill to give good service to an area, and it’s a lot of work and money to do it, and very few people will probably be in each area. This is the same problem for every deep rural area which is also compounded by 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 bunch of trees or how the hill and valley forms can overshoot the areas.”

Powe pointed to rural areas being classified as such because they are far away from main cities and other key infrastructure, with less people living there.

“More trees, more hills by nature, because they aren’t connected to main cities or infrastructure. Everywhere in the world, it’s just harder to justify building out all the complex stuff to service them and it’s further away too. Both providers are doing a good job in giving coverage to the most amount of people in a profitable way. Somebody else, like a Government, would have to fund the support of building expensive towers to unprofitable locations.”

Wallace told the Sunday Observer that Flow has done a lot of work, but underscored challenges to access, such as topography and illegal occupancy.

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

Wallace said Flow has continued its ‘Mission Connect Programme’ and remain at the forefront of investing to bring connectivity to more unserved and underserved communities across Jamaica.

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

“While we are in a competitive industry, we are the only provider that is consistently investing in and building out our fixed network in rural, unserved, underserved communities across Jamaica. To this end, we have invested over $40 billion since 2016 to bring more communities online and we are going to continue until every home that is serviceable by electricity is covered with fibre.”

Graphic by Romardo Lyons

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

“The theft and or vandalism of backup power sources has caused both service instability and extended outages in the past. We consider this an existential threat to the delivery of a reliable network. It is important to note that we have seen an increase in incidents of vandalism to cables on our fibre optic network, which we believe to be the work of thieves who continue to forage for copper cables mounted along roadways,” he told the Sunday Observer.

Samaroo said Digicel does not operate a copper-based network, as its network is 100 per cent pure fibre. He said this “superior” technology is key to delivering extremely fast speeds to homes and businesses, with a massive spend of $31 billion.

“We wish to use this forum to urge persons to stop the practise of cutting telecommunication cables of any type. It is a dangerous, selfish, and unlawful act,” Samaroo added.

He added that, while the company monitors its network 24/7 and responds instantly to these types of willful damage, it ends up diverting limited resources towards repairing cables which can take it up to eight hours to fix.

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

“Quite often, persons found guilty of this crime – simple larceny – receive a suspended sentence or end up paying a small fine. Of course, the charge and penalties do not reflect the serious nature of the crime. For years, we have been advocating for dedicated legislation that provides stiffer penalties for theft and vandalism of cell site equipment, since the practice carries with it severe national security and safety implications.”

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

“Some of the steps we’ve taken to address these include overbuilding our copper network with fibre, proactive maintenance, and monitoring, while adding capacity to manage increased demand on both our fixed and mobile networks. For 2022, we will be expanding our fibre network into more than 28 communities across St Mary, Portland, and St Thomas, which will take our total expansion in the region over the past two years to over 50 communities and developments.”

Romardo Lyons

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