Staying connected in the Friendly Islands

We live in a connected world. You may discount that when you live in a city where mobile phone penetration is over 200%, but for the people of Tonga, where only one in two people have a mobile phone, connectivity remains for the privileged half.

Touted as the Friendly Islands, the Kingdom of Tonga consists of 170 islands scattered across 700,000 square kilometers in the South Pacific Ocean. With a population of 107,000 scattered across 36 islands, keeping the native population connected and commerce moving present an interesting challenge for everyone. The sub-tropical climate, heavy vegetation, high humidity and rainy days a third of the year present further challenges for the local telecommunications service providers: Tonga Telecommunications Corporation and Digicel Tonga Limited.

In addition to microlinks that carry voice and video from the public switched telephone network (PSTN) to businesses and homes, satellite communications offers an alternative, albeit slow and less reliable, mode of communications for the country. The small subscriber base and scattered terrain made fiber uneconomical.

For mobile phone network operator, Digicell, the topographic construct of Tonga presented both challenges and opportunities. The operator enlisted the aid of microwave equipment manufacturer, Aviat Networks to design and deploy a communications network that would serve just about every resident in the Pacific nation of Tonga. Aviat, in turn, called on CommScope to provide the best antenna solution for the harsh environment and extremely long links involved.

One particular challenge is erecting a tower on the highest point in Tonga on the island of Kao, towering 1,033 meters above sea level. The microwave link design consisted of STR 600 split mount trunking radio from Aviat. These were connected to ExtremeLine HSX high cross polar discrimination antennas from Commscope. The setup would then link the 26 inhabited islands. One link stretches 189 kilometers – making it one of the longest deployed communications links in the world.

According to Navin Vohra, vice president, Service Provider, Asia Pacific, Commscope, a total of seven sites were deployed for the project with an average distance of 90 kilometers to the central tower on Kao. One key point of interest is one link with a length of 189 kilometers point-to-point, is the longest link deployed in the world.

Because some of the repeaters were installed on remote sites with no access to utility powerlines, solar collectors with genset backup were used to power radios at the these sites. “These were fully automated, with remote monitoring used to check for fuel levels. These sites include multiple high resolution cameras which can be used to visually inspect the site, especially after extreme weather events such as tropical cyclones,” said Vohra.

With 17 volcanos dotting the islands of Tonga, care was taken to ensure that the radio towers could be built in uninhabited and volcanic islands.

Completed in under 12 months, the biggest benefit is the reliable communications backhaul links between the islands.

The project in Tonga is by no means the largest or most complex. Vohra noted that the bigger market is in India although similar challenges dotted Southeast Asia including Indonesia, Vietnam, Myanmar and the Philippines.

Vohra noted that one of the key challenges for telecommunications operators is the millennial customer. He noted that smartphone usage among millennials is driving exponential growth in data and bandwidth requirements.

He also cited the rise in applications that require low latency – from IoT, self-driving cars to artificial intelligence technologies. “The number of applications that is going to require low latency is putting a lot of challenges on network operators to deploy technologies that can deliver this low latency expectation at extremely high speed and with very low delays,” commented Vohra.

For operators, however, the major concerns are around densification, virtualization, optimization and simplification of networks. Vohra commented that operators will need to overcome all these challenges through the convergence of wireless and fiber connectivity solutions.


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