By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
The Bahamas Telecommunications Company (BTC) yesterday said it is no longer pursuing 30 days free roaming for Abaco and Grand Bahama subscribers because restoration has “picked up in earnest”.
Garfield “Garry” Sinclair, BTC’s chief executive, told Tribune Business that the carrier now expected to restore an “adequate level of service” to Grand Bahama clients within the next 14 days as it seeks to rebuild its network to withstand future Dorian-strength storms.
Pledging that BTC, together with its parent, contractors and vendors, was “going flat out” to restore its network and services throughout the two Dorian-ravaged islands, Mr Sinclair said coverage had improved to “more than 50 percent availability” in Freeport and West End.
Revealing that Dorian had “taught us a lot”, Mr Sinclair said among the lessons learned was the need to provide back-up generators at all cell tower sites and “bury” its aerial transmission and fibre network in the ground to protect it from high winds and storm surges.
The BTC chief, explaining that both its subscribers and Aliv’s were still able to roam on each other’s network in Abaco and Grand Bahama, said: “That lasts until we’ve adequately restored the mobile network.
“We anticipate being able to offer that level of service to many of the people in Grand Bahama well within the next two weeks. That’s how long the roaming agreement [with Aliv] lasts...We believe we will have Grand Bahama up and running at an acceptable level in the major population centres, which is our major focus.
“Our restoration efforts have picked up quite significantly, and we believe we will get it all done in Grand Bahama in a 14-day period. Abaco is going to be a bit more of a struggle, but it’s a struggle for both networks.”
Tribune Business last week reported that BTC and Aliv were at odds over how long customers should be allowed to roam free of charge on each other’s networks, with the former seeking 30 days but its rival offering only a 14-day deal.
Mr Sinclair yesterday indicated that network restoration had progressed faster than anticipated, resulting in BTC falling into line with the 14-day period Aliv wanted. Disclosing that the two parties were still “hammering out” terms for a roaming agreement already in place, the BTC chief executive added: “We think we’re there.
“We thought a 30-day deadline would be enough, but the restoration process has picked up in earnest.... We’ve made mobile voice and data service free for our Abaco and Grand Bahama subscribers, and have not limited the amount of data and minutes they’ll be able to use.
“You get free service on our network, and we have not set a date for when we will end it. You do not have to worry about top-up and buying credits for pre-paid, and we have stopped billing post-paid until further notice.”
Mr Sinclair said BTC was also “reaching out” to its corporate customers recognising that their return to normal operations is key to the speed and extent with which The Bahamas recovers from Dorian.
“The key to getting communities back to normal is getting business back to normal, so people start reaching out and doing things as normal,” he added. While BTC’s enterprise clients will be restored once electricity supply resumes, Mr Sinclair said this process may take longer for small and medium-sized enterprise (SME) customers given that they were using older technology.
Describing restoration as “a marathon”, and something that is “not going to be a sprint”, the BTC chief executive added: “This kind of hurricane, with the intensity it came, was new to us in The Bahamas and taught us a lot...
“Is there more work to do? Absolutely, but we are going flat out. The focus is rebuilding an even more resilient network so that after the next event, which will come, the conversation we will have is: ‘Garry, how did you get back up so quickly?’ That’s the conversation I want to have.”
Asked to identify the lessons learned, Mr Sinclair replied: “We have a lot of aerial transmission capacity and fibre, and have to bury that. Cell sites need their own power generators; we have to self-energise way more of those, and we have to be more efficient with the dispersion of towers throughout those markets and cut more effective tower sharing agreements so that we don’t have multiple towers on either side that need repair when these events repeat themselves in the future.
“We need a more efficient tower network that gets us both up right away. Our fixed network is going largely to fibre. Getting away from copper makes it more resilient, and less maintenance intensive. It’s going to make us less power hungry and make us more efficient.”
Mr Sinclair declined to provide financial figures on BTC’s Dorian damages, and the cost of the network rebuild, but confirmed the price tag will run into the millions of dollars. “It’s not going to be cheap; it’s going to be expensive,” he added. “We’re going to spare no expense in having a super network rebuild and not leave any of it up to chance.”
The BTC chief added that the carrier was fully insured for storm damages and loss, and revealed that the Abaco mobile network’s capacity remains at around 20-25 percent until breaks in its fibre network are located and repaired.
Mr Sinclair said Balan Nair, head of Liberty Latin America, BTC’s ultimate parent, had also informed him that post-Dorian progress was matching or better than its affiliate’s recovery in Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria in 2017, and The Bahamas was just “two to three weeks out or better”.