Haiti Internet

Mobile Internet In Haiti, Part 2

A while back, I posted about getting mobile Internet in Haiti. As technology changes rapidly, especially when it comes to Haitian internet access, I figured I’d post an update, having just returned from there in late February.

If you have a GSM-capable US phone (most Samsung Galaxy devices use software-defined radios and can speak CDMA or GSM fluently, simply by switching an option in the software), you’ll need to unlock it for international use:

Sprint: Contact Sprint Customer Service while still in the US and ask them for an international unlock. As long as your account has been active for more than 60 days, this should be no problem. They’ll walk you through the UICC unlock process. It helps to be on the Sprint network while this unlock happens, but it can also happen over Wi-Fi if you’re already out of the country.

Verizon: Verizon generally does not lock their phones. You may want to check with Verizon to make sure yours is unlocked. See item #18 in their Global Roaming FAQ.

AT&T: If your phone is under contract with AT&T or is an iPhone, you’re pretty much out of luck. AT&T is so terrified of losing their customers that they will only unlock the phone if you buy out your installment contract or pay an ETF. The good news is that most cell phone repair shops know the unlock codes and will unlock them for you for a small fee. (This is a tip I got from the manager of a local AT&T store who thinks corporate policy on unlocking for international use is dumb). If your phone is out of contract, simply go to https://www.att.com/deviceunlock and fill out the form. There is nobody at AT&T you can talk to about this, nor can the store personnel help you. If the process fails, then you’re simply out of luck, and should consider choosing a more customer-friendly carrier next time.

T-Mobile: No idea. I don’t know anyone who has a T-Mobile device. I expect their policy is probably very similar to AT&T.

Once you get to Haiti, you can stop at either the Digicel or Natcom shops just outside customs at the airport in Port-Au-Prince. (I would expect that there’s a similar setup at Cap-Haitien.) Natcom will load you up with 5GB of data and some voice minutes for 1000 Gdes ($25 US). I don’t know what Digicel’s current pricing is, but I expect it’s comparable. If you’re going to be out in the provinces, Natcom seems to have a better network than Digicel. If you’re staying in and around Port-Au-Prince, either network should work fine for you as both carriers have HSPA+ networks. I don’t know what the Natcom coverage situation is like on La Gonâve, but Digicel has EDGE coverage on most of the island, and HSPA/+ around Anse-a-Galets.

The staff at the Natcom shop had no trouble setting up my Galaxy S4, and in 15 minutes I walked out of there on the Haitian network. Using it as a hotspot was merely a matter of turning it on, and didn’t require any further configuration. Internet speeds in PAP average in the 2-3Mbps range.

It should be noted here that with both carriers, all Facebook traffic is free and doesn’t count toward your data plan usage. This is a pretty cool deal. My understanding is that Facebook located an edge node within Haiti to reduce transit off-island, and free access to the growing smartphone population in Haiti was part of the deal.

On a similar vein, Google also seems to be getting better presence in Haiti, and I’m told they too have edge nodes located in-country. Their maps product actually has pretty good data in PAP, although directions are still iffy as the addressing system there is a little tricky, and there aren’t necessarily names attached to many of the minor streets. It’s pretty good at figuring out where you are though. I wonder how soon they’ll get a Street View rig down there.

When you leave, your SIM will still be usable for 90 days, after which it will expire and no longer function on the network. There is currently excellent public wifi at the PAP airport, so handing your SIM off to one of your Haitian hosts is probably your best bet, as they can get some additional usage out of whatever unused data/minutes are left on it.

(I also discovered that on my Galaxy S4, GPS didn’t work unless there was a SIM in the slot)

 

Mobile Voice in Haiti

As a follow-on to my previous post about getting mobile internet, here’s one about getting voice service on your US phone (at least if you have a Sprint phone).

I have a Samsung Galaxy S4 on Sprint. Sprint’s CDMA voice network is incompatible with the GSM networks in most of the rest of the world, but recent Samsung Galaxy devices (at least the S3 and S4, and other devices of the same generation/platform) use a software-defined radio that can be made to speak GSM or CDMA at will, with a simple settings change. CDMA doesn’t require a SIM but LTE and GSM do, so the Galaxy is a de facto international phone.

Sprint lets you do international roaming calls for $2/min, which is absurdly high. It’s much better to get a SIM from a local carrier and use that. Making it do this is relatively simple. If your account is in good standing, a simple phone call to Sprint will unlock your phone for using other SIMs (and before you try to do this for a GSM carrier in the US, it explicitly does NOT work on AT&T or T-Mobile). This unlock process does require a data connection (mobile or Wi-Fi) for the phone to receive the unlock signal. After doing that, there’s a simple process that the Sprint rep will give you over the phone to complete the process.

Once that’s done (took me about 5 minutes on the phone – which I did via Skype from Haiti!), all you have to do is go find a local SIM (and in the case of the Galaxy, trim it down to size), pop it in the phone, switch it over to GSM in the Mobile Networks settings, pick your carrier, and off you go.

I’ll add screenshots just as soon as I can make the phone do them. The normal S4 tricks aren’t working.

 

Mobile Internet in Haiti

Note: Be sure to read my March 2015 update about this…

I’m back down in Haiti, as some of you already know, working on some of the wireless networks linking the different sites of the Église Méthodiste d’Haïti (EMH), which is the Haitian Methodist Church. Knowing that I was coming into an environment where the internet connection was not functioning properly, and that I was likely going to need internet access for troubleshooting, I armed myself with a 3G GSM hotspot that I picked up on eBay.

After parting with about 50 bucks (plus another 15 for a charger and 2 spare batteries), the Huawei E583C unit showed up via USPS on my doorstep 4 days later bearing a postmark from Hong Kong (color me impressed, I can’t even get postcards from Toronto that quickly!)

20131125_150332I opened it up and inside was a “T-Mobile Wireless Pointer” from the UK division of T-Mobile. I popped on down to the local T-Mobile store and get a SIM for testing, and fired it up. After much futzing around trying to get it to speak 3G to the network without any success, I go back to T-Mobile and pick a tech’s brains. Turns out this one operates on the 800/1800/1900 band, which T-Mobile has phased out 3G on to make room for more LTE. Meanwhile, Jay was in Haiti, so I asked him to pick up a NatCom SIM and bring it home with him.

I’ll pause briefly here to talk a bit about mobile in Haiti. There are two major players, Digicel (which has a thing for island nations all over the world) and NatCom, which is formed out of what was left of the national telephone company (Teleco) and the Vietnamese national telecom (VietTel) that bought up a 70% interest in Teleco not long after the earthquake. What little copper telecom infrastructure existed in the country has long since been destroyed by a number of different Screen Shot 2013-11-25 at 3.20.19 PMmeans, both natural and human. Since the earthquake, NatCom has been building out a LOT of fiber. Digicel operates the only direct fiber link out of the country to Columbus Networks‘ Fibralink fiber network that links the Caribbean up to the rest of the world. The other way out of Haiti to the internet is via microwave backhaul to the Dominican Republic which has 2 landings of the ARCOS fiber ring.

In the nearly 4 years since the quake, mobile internet in Haiti has gone nuts. It’s now quite reliable, and surprisingly cheap if you know how to do it. Monthly postpaid plans for data cost about a quarter what they do in the US – a 10GB plan on digicel will set you back 1000 HTG (about 25 bucks). The same plan on Verizon in the US by comparison is about $100! Digicel offers current-generation Android phones like the S4 (but be prepared to part with full unsubsidized price for it), and Apple recently started making unlocked SIM-less iPhones available on its own store. The smartphone revolution is coming to Haiti, and it’s going to be interesting to watch. There was someone at church on sunday using an iPad, and it wasn’t someone from our team.

When I got down to Haiti and put the SIM Jay obtained for me into the hotspot (erm, “Pointer”… can any Brits enlighten me as to the origin of that term?), and getting no joy. Realizing that the zillion config changes I’d made to try and get it to work on T-Mobile’s network were probably interfering, I hit the factory reset button, and as soon as it rebooted, it was speaking 3G on Natcom’s network. It was that easy.

Next step was to load up some funds on the card, since it was a basic card that came empty of funds. Normally you can do this from the phone, but since this was a hotspot, I didn’t have the ability to dial numbers (although the Huawei firmware does allow you to SMS, which turned out to be a critical component). Natcom partners with a third party called EzeTop which allows you to reload phone cards online (yours or anyone else’s). So I dropped 10 bucks onto it (which translates to 392 HTG, a fairly lousy exchange rate) plus a penny per 10 Goudes as a transaction fee, and off I go. No sign anywhere of what the per-MB cost is. NatCom’s website isn’t particularly helpful in that regard (I later find out that it’s 1.9HTG/MB, about 4 cents.)

Now that I had mobile internet, I fired up the iPad and did some testing on the drive to Petit-Goave, and was getting quite reasonable speeds around 1.5-2Mbps in both directions, very much capable of posting pictures to facebook and whatnot.

Once we got to the guest house where we were staying, we discovered that the wifi there was indeed out of service. I put the hotspot to good use downloading information I was going to need to fix it. In very short order, net access ceases, and I get a screen from NatCom saying that my card is empty, and provides a helpful list of plans and how to activate them. I then go find our hostess and borrow her laptop and internet access to load up some more funds on the card, and then try to activate one of the listed plans. It tells me I can’t do that because I have the wrong type of card.

Then, disaster. Within a matter of little more than an hour, 20 bucks worth of data on the card had vanished. After some digging, I discovered that my good buddy CrashPlan had stabbed me in the back and decided to start a big backup. I killed CrashPlan and reloaded the card (this is getting expensive, and I’m still not entirely sure how much data I’m burning through, especially now that the team is sharing in the internet joy — and the cost!)

Now that I’m back online, I start digging around the NatCom site again to figure out what plans I can access through the SIM I already have. Turns out that they have slightly different SIMs and plans for laptop/USB modems and for mobile phones. I had the latter, a “Nat-Mango” card, which can be had from any street vendor for 25 HTG. I finally found the list of mobile internet plans for the phones, and the correct number to SMS the plan change to. So I send off the text, only to get back “You don’t

Screen Shot 2013-11-05 at 8.03.55 AM

have enough funds for this plan”. I keep moving down the list until even the cheapest one kicks back the message… Uh-oh, I’m running on fumes again. Just as I go to top it up again, it shuts off. Fortunately, one of our Haitian team members had data on his Digicel phone, and I was able to get the account charged up, and switched over to the “Unlimited” plan. Unlimited in this case means 3.5GB at max HSPA+ speeds, then you’re rate-limited to 3.5 Mbps after that. Given that I never saw 3Mbps anywhere, this isn’t really a huge hindrance (that may be a factor of the device more than the network, too). By the time the week was out, our team had gobbled up nearly 25 gigabytes of data through the device.

So, in short, mobile internet from local carriers in Haiti is reliable and cheap (if you know the trick to not paying out the nose per MB), and can be done on a fairly inexpensive piece of hardware. If you’re so inclined, you can also get USB sticks from NatCom for about 1500 HTG. My next step is going to be to see if a device from Cradlepoint can handle the Natcom USB sticks, since they don’t have such a tight limitation on clients.

Windows Updates to go… not so much?

I posted a few weeks ago about bringing a WSUS machine down to Haiti as a sort of proxy – unfortunately, this project turned out to be a bust.

Conceptually, it worked. Machines were getting updates, and everything was great… until it started blowing out the CMOS settings and bluescreening a couple times a day. I suspect it’s probably power-related, but in any case, it was far from stable enough to leave unattended.

Windows Updates, To Go!

When I leave for my trip to Haiti in a few weeks, one of the things I’ll be doing is bringing multiple computers up to current patches. There are a few ways to do that:

One is to bring some sort of removable media (optical or flash stick) down and apply them manually. The problem with this is that once I leave, the machines stay in their current state until the next geek can come down and apply the next batch of patches. Downloading patches for multiple machines over developing-world internet connections can easily run into daily bandwidth caps, and Windows Update doesn’t cache very well through a normal proxy server such as Squid.

Another is to use Windows Server Update Services (WSUS). I initially considered setting up a Windows Server VM on my laptop, syncing up the updates stateside and temporarily configuring the machines down there to pull from my impromptu update server. Then I got the idea that a lightweight appliance-type server that lived down there permanently would be a useful solution that would download the patches once and distribute them over the LAN. Since we’re planning on using Microsoft Security Essentials for anti-malware, this solves the problem of definition updates. Daily patch sync would happen in the wee hours of the morning when the oversubscribed connections in Haiti are generally pretty clear.

I rummaged around the office and found a Dell FX160 thin client that we got as a demo unit from Dell (I have a number of blog posts on the topic of this device). It has been gathering dust for some time as it’s hobbled with a 1GB SATA flash disk and limited RAM. After checking on hardware requirements for both Windows Server and WSUS, I went out and picked up a 120GB SSD and a pair of 2GB RAM sticks and put them in. The choice of an SSD wasn’t so much for performance reasons (although it can’t hurt), but for the machine to be entirely solid-state. It’s going to live in a fairly harsh environment where mechanical failures are likely.

Once I got the hardware put together, I hooked up a USB optical drive and loaded Windows Server 2003 R2, and then installed WSUS and performed an update sync. The whole process went mostly smoothly.

Here are a few of the gotchas in installing Windows 2003 on an FX160 thin client, a job it was NEVER meant to do:

  • SATA controller needs to be in ATA mode. If it’s in AHCI mode, Windows 2003 will not recognize the disk.
  • When using a storage device that the BIOS recognizes as a hard drive, it expects to see a fan plugged into the motherboard. This fan is part of the hard drive bracket kit (Dell P/N H224H). When a fan is not detected, each boot will require a manual intervention during POST to press F1.
  • Stock Windows 2003 media does not include video drivers or network drivers for the FX160 (Broadcom NetXTreme 57XX).
  • Dell’s support site doesn’t have the most recent drivers for the Broadcom.
  • It’s virtually impossible to find a 6″ SATA extension connector, either for data, power, or both. I was finally able to find a power extension, but used a standard SATA cable to connect to the other SATA port on the motherboard.

The SSD I used for this is an OCZ Agility 3, 120GB. Disk performance on large writes is almost 100MB/sec, which is about twice as fast as my 7200RPM spindle drive in my laptop. Windows performs very well with 4GB, a SSD, and a 1.6GHz Atom processor.

The next step was to configure the clients to update from the server for testing. I still have one of the Asus netbooks that we deployed to Haiti in a previous trip. This is where I discovered that Windows Home and Windows Starter don’t include the policy editor (gpedit.msc) that I’m used to finding on Pro/Enterprise/Ultimate versions of windows. This is understandable, your average home user doesn’t (and shouldn’t) normally jack with system policy. Fortunately, all the policy editor does is manipulate registry keys, and the process of configuring Windows Update via the registry is well documented. This actually simplifies things, since all I have to do is create a .reg file that I can import on all the target machines.

Next post: Installing Squid. Not content to use this box for mere update caching, we’re gonna have it be our web proxy as well.

Haiti Mission Trip… From my couch!

This week, I’ve been assisting our mission team in Haiti with networking upgrades for the Guest House. I really wanted to go on this trip, but there’s way too much going on back at Resurrection. So I get to do my part through the magic of the Internet.

With the help of Liz and Bryon on the ground, as well as Thomas, our local IT guy there, we got remote management enabled on the Sonicwall, and from there I was able to reconfigure it for Dynamic DNS, WAN failover to the satellite when the WiMax link goes out.

The following day, I got word from the team that the failover works like a champ and that performance is much improved. Now we have a static IP on the WiMax link, so we can remote into the device when our teams aren’t there.

The other piece that needed to happen was to secure the wireless so that folks in the neighbourhood can’t mooch the limited bandwidth at the guest house. We tried to do WPA, but realized afterward that you can’t do WDS and WPA on a Ubiquiti radio because the MAC addresses are encrypted in WPA. Going to have to fall back to WEP. Key management isn’t nearly as easy with WEP, but it is what it is. Maybe Ubiquiti isn’t the solution here. That will be for a future team to figure out.