By NEIL HARTNELL
Tribune Business Editor
Aliv yesterday completed the full restoration of its mobile towers in Abaco and east Grand Bahama, finishing a storm recovery “first phase” estimated to have cost between $5m-$10m.
Damian Blackburn, Aliv’s top executive, told Tribune Business that 99 percent of the population in both Dorian-ravaged islands are now covered by its network as it moves into what he described as “phase two” of the restoration process.
Estimating that this will be completed by the end of October, Mr Blackburn said it will involve the removal and/or replacement of inoperable equipment from its various sites, repairs to partially damaged gear and talks with the Bahamas Telecommunications Company (BTC) over a “permanent solution” for the latter’s destroyed towers where both rivals co-located.
He revealed that Aliv had been asked by BTC to provide free roaming services for the latter’s Abaco customers for a further 60 days, indicating the extent of the beating its competitor’s network suffered during Dorian’s category five winds and storm surge.
While that arrangement was no longer necessary for Grand Bahama, and had been discontinued this week, Mr Blackburn said all of Aliv’s 23 Abaco mobile towers - together with nine in Grand Bahama - were relying on generator or battery power amid the wait for electricity supply to be restored.
He paid particular tribute to Aliv’s Bahamian engineers for “restoring the network at such speed”, saying they had “really stepped up to the plate and hit the ball out of the park” in the almost four weeks since Dorian struck the north-west Bahamas.
“We’re still in the early assessment phase of all the costs. We expect the cost to be in the $5m-$10m range, but most of that will be insured,” Mr Blackburn told Tribune Business of the damage inflicted by the category five storm.
“Most of the damage to Aliv’s network was caused by unexpected flooding levels never seen before in the history of the country. There was no structural damage to Cable Bahamas or Aliv-built towers that were designed for a category five hurricane.”
Mr Blackburn said that while Aliv “maintained coverage throughout the storm” in Abaco, “over 90 percent of our 23 sites eventually went off because of loss of fibre connectivity, loss of network equipment and back-up power due to flooding”.
Following the restoration of full 3G (third generation) and Long-Term Evolution (LTE) technology coverage on Great and Little Abaco, he added that “full coverage on all outlying cays” was restored yesterday with Man O’ War Cay being the final site to come online.
“We have 23 sites on air covering 99 percent of the population,” Mr Blackburn told Tribune Business, crediting Aliv’s rapid post-Dorian recovery on Abaco to the deployment of four “cell towers on wheels” at sites where it had co-located with BTC and the helicopter airlift that brought in engineers to begin the restoration.
The mobile provider, in which Cable Bahamas has a 48.25 percent stake with Board and management control, also deployed a roll-on, roll-off mailboat immediately the storm had passed to ferry necessary staff and equipment into Abaco, while taking off employees on that island that had lost their homes and wanted to leave.
Network equipment was also airlifted in on September 6 from the Panama base of Aliv’s main supplier, Huawei, with two further shipments dispatched over the next two to three days as the recovery effort gathered momentum. Mr Blackburn confirmed that equipment had moved from Nassau to the two storm-hit islands on an almost-daily basis by air and sea.
“Aliv is providing 3G national roaming services to enable BTC customers in Abaco to use Aliv’s network for a period of 60 days, which was requested by BTC,” he told Tribune Business. “In Grand Bahama we provided 3G national roaming for a period of 14 days, which has come to an end because they said they didn’t need it any more.
“The only place in The Bahamas where Aliv is not fully operational is Grand Cay, and we’re sending a team in there tomorrow [today] to assess how we can try and provide some coverage. It’s a significant challenge as we have to try and find some transmission. The BTC transmission link that used to provide connectivity is not possible because the sites are down, but we’re going to investigate a solution.”
Focusing on Grand Bahama, he said 80 percent of its population - concentrated in Freeport and West End, which were marginally less impacted - were restored immediately following Dorian’s passage. And, while 50 percent of its cell towers were knocked out of action due to flooding, the carrier said its 32 sites were now giving 99 percent population coverage.
Mr Blackburn added: “Eight BTC sites in Grand Bahama and Abaco where we co-located network equipment can’t be used due to structural damage, mainly in east Grand Bahama.” He said Aliv was employing six “cell towers on wheels” in the area to fill these coverage gaps.
“Phase one of the recovery is largely complete,” Mr Blackburn said. “Phase two we expect to be complete by the end of October. It involves the removal, replacement and repair of damaged equipment, inspection of the sites and moving, where possible, to a more permanent solution.
“We are co-ordinating closely with BTC in relation to towers where we used to co-locate, and that is no longer possible, to determine the best permanent solution.” He added that while Aliv’s disaster preparedness protocols had been “tested to the max, given the enormity of the storm it held up”.
Engineers had been pre-positioned to move as soon as the hurricane passed, with all cell towers and equipment checked prior to Dorian’s arrival, and generators fully fuelled.