A day in the life of a VSAT engineer

Normal, Weekender

Papua New Guinea’s rugged geography offers major challenges to telecommunications company Telikom PNG Ltd in its efforts to bring services to rural areas, writes DAMARIS MINIKULA

MAKING a phone call, surfing the internet or receiving a fax are everyday functions of life taken for granted by a small per cent of Papua New Guinea’s population. For the larger percentage, access to communication systems is far more elusive.
Only a few weeks ago, remote Torokina in Bougainville, had access to a telephone. This may sound basic but for Community Development Officer Amos Baiwa and the vast majority, having access to a telephone was a luxury beyond their reach.
“It costs me K200 and four hours travel by boat in the open sea to make a simple telephone call. This is the first time since time immemorial the people of Torokina has access to using a telephone without going to Buka,” said Mr Baiwa.
The rugged geography of Papua New Guinea offers major challenges to telecommunications company Telikom PNG Ltd in their efforts to bring telecommunications services to rural parts of the country. It is in these conditions that VSAT platforms – services delivered via satellite-based Very Small Aperture Terminals (VSATs) – take centre stage.
The Government faces an ongoing challenge to provide basic telephony services throughout the country. To meet this challenge, Telikom PNG has deployed the SkyEdge broadband satellite from Gilat satellite Networks Limited’s range of VSAT products for a low cost, reliable public telephony solution. Gilat is a world leader in satellite-based rural telephony.
This satellite system, which is user-friendly and can run on solar power, standby generators and main power supply from PNG Power, is capable of bringing satellite internet access and telephone connections to the most remote communities.
SkyEdge has the capacity to provide more lines for telephones and fax, internet, EFTPOS (Electronic  Funds Transfer at Point of Sale), CDMA (Code Division Multiple Access), Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM) and Virtual Private Networks (VPN).
Through these efforts, at least basic technological benefits of the modern world are reaching places like Torokina.
People’s lives are changing for the better as they take advantage of their new access to a full range of telecommunication services.
It is simpler said than done to bring such services to remote areas, considering PNG’s rugged terrains. Often forgotten in all the glamour of executive launches of newly installed VSATs, are the people who travel these remote areas to install the technology.
They encounter other Papua New Guineans tucked away between mountains and rainforest canopies miles away from the bright city lights of Port Moresby and who, in most cases, miss out on basic services.
On Saturday 9 January, three teams of Telikom VSAT engineers left Port Moresby for the Autonomous Region of Bougainville to install SkyEdge on 14 sites across the resource-rich island.
As soon as they landed in Buka, they took on the four hours drive to Arawa where all the installation materials were stored.
A VSAT engineer’s normal day begins with a quick breakfast and then its work, in rain or shine, till late with very little rest.
Torokina is an isolated paradise located on the southern part of Bougainville, accessible only by boat. When the Telikom VSAT team took on Torokina, it was late in the afternoon. Loaded with bags of cement, poles, solar panels and satellite dish, the boat maneuvered through the rough waves until it reached its destination at 11:30pm.
They built a camp fire to keep the sand flies at bay and slept on the sand until daybreak the next day.
The only means of transport on Torokina is a tractor. The tractor arrived in the morning to transport the team and installation materials to the government station office.
In the installation process, all power aspects and satellite dish are built up first then the system is connected and powered on. Telikom Earth Station at Gerehu does the necessary checks such as the signal strength of the satellite before it is locked. After this is done, a cross pole test is done to avoid interference of users on the same satellite.
While this is being done, lines are run in the district office for telephone and fax lines which are then connected to the VSAT.
Heavy rain fell as the team installed Torokina’s telecommunications link to the rest of the world.
With more than a dozen sites to install, the team worked tirelessly in the rain to complete the installation at Torokina.
After a successful test call, the team quickly left for the other sites which included Wakunai, Tinputz, Salausuir, Kunua, Kuraio, Torokina, Panguna, Sovele, Mamarengo, Panaku, Katuku and Buin.
When the team travelled to Bana Station in Nagovis, the team encountered yet another problem. A river burst its banks and they spent half the day waiting for the swell to subside.
It was 10:30 pm and raining heavily when the tired team set out for Arawa after installation VSAT at Bana Station in the rain. Halfway on, the vehicle broke down. Totally drenched, they managed to fix the vehicle before they moved on.
Conquering rugged terrains, fast flowing rivers, harsh weather and insomnia are all in a day’s work for a VSAT engineer.