Providing coverage at protest sites

15 Nov 2013

Providing coverage at any public event is a challenge, but what of a political protest? During the first couple of days of protesters in Bangkok converging on Democracy monument, many of the pictures of speakers showed what looked like a cellsite in the background to the left of the stage. Not that it worked well as coverage in this connected day and age means that practically every one of the protesters had a smart phone and tried, often in vain, to upload their selfies to Facebook, LINE and Instagram.

I sent all three of the major networks pictures of the mast and asked whose it was. AIS and TrueMove said it was not theirs but Dtac never responded to my email.

AIS VP for Network Saran Phalopakarn said that the cellsite was not his, but helped analyse the picture. He identified it as a 3G small cell using what was probably a 5-GHz Wi-Fi backhaul from the pictures of the small dish under it.

Saran said that it was a futile effort though, given the sheer numbers of protesters, and at most would give a tiny bit of coverage to those in the front row.

The problem, he argued, lay in a fundamental 3GPP design fault that would lead to every phone shouting its presence to the base station and thus every phone being drowned in a sea of noise. 2G did not suffer that problem. LTE cannot come fast enough.

I asked him about his view on HSEPA, which seems to be Huawei’s poster child as of late, offering LTE speeds with WCDMA backward compatibility. Saran wrote it off in this scenario because it shared the same fundamental flaws due to the need for backward compatibility.

Saran said that the regulator should enforce right-of-way laws and allow the telcos to move in with fiber and small cells in the protest sites to try and provide coverage. I assume he was being sarcastic here, but one can never be sure with his sense of humour and technical mind.

We had this conversation in public on Twitter and people, as per Twitter’s motto, joined in the conversation. Someone in the US was obviously amazed that telcos rolled out small cells at protests sites in Thailand and commented that coverage in front of Capitol Hill was patchy even on the best of days, making it impossible to live-cast protests over a phone.

“Perhaps it was by design”, I replied.

The conversation drifted to the possibility of Wi-Fi offload through an ad-hoc mesh using the new feature of the popular open-source DD-WRT firmware. Some, like the semi-anonymous info-security blogger the Grugq, said that consumer grade hardware did not stand a chance. Others suggested that rolling out a 2.4-GHz mesh with DD-WRT using a 5 GHz backhaul should be possible. Wi-Fi was pretty clean with no problems at all using Wi-Fi direct between my phone and camera during my venture, though people did seem intrigued at the camera and kept asking questions about it.

Ah yes, the fun things one gets into at protest sites.

Most of the messages were political, but the state enterprise union confederation was present in force with CAT Telecom’s union focusing their placards and banners on the 1800 2G extension and also the 3G non-auction, calling for the regulator to be removed for bending over backward to help the private sector operators.

Meanwhile, the cabinet of ministers met on Tuesday and according to reports in many publications, approved a secret request by the military to purchase cell phone blocking equipment to use against the anti-government protesters costing $3.7 million (117 million baht). Not that they needed any help in crashing the networks, of course.

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