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.

Fixing network Priority in Windows : Win7 Update

A long time ago, I made a post about fixing network priority in Windows, and I found myself having to do the same task again on my new Windows 7 system. The process isn’t quite as easy to find under Windows 7/Vista. Here’s the updated version:

Right-click on your network icon and go to the “Network and Sharing center” (if the “Network” icon is on your desktop, you can also get there by right-clicking and going to properties)

Click on “Change Adapter Settings”

Network Advanced

Press the “Alt” Key to show the menu, and click on “Advanced”, then “Advanced Settings”.

(from here, the process is unchanged)

Move the Wired LAN Connection (By Default, “Local Area Connection”) to the top, followed by the wireless connection. Make sure that any VPN virtual adapters come after these, otherwise the VPN will only use the ones above it. This tends to be problematic if you’re using split tunneling, as it will kill any network connection you have.

Once you’ve applied the settings, open a command prompt and run “nslookup” – it should default to the DNS server for your wired network.

AT&T FAIL!!!!

Time Warner’s internet service has been flaky at best at my house lately, despite swapping out the modem. So I figured I’d see if AT&T would give me data-only u-verse. They will, and when I started asking about additional fees, the conversation took a sharp weird turn.

Delilah: Thank you for using AT&T! How can I help you today?
you: looking for info on data service.
you: need 1Mbps or higher upstream, 10Mbps downstream
Delilah: Yes, we offer up to 18 Mbps, if you are not ordering the TV service, then we do have an installation fee.
you: what’s the pricing for 12/1.5 ?
Delilah: There is a learn more blue tab on U-verse page. (note: it’s ORANGE)
Delilah: Please click to view speeds and pricing, the installation is $149.
you: what am I clicking on?
Delilah: click on build your own bundle.
you: all the tabs on the page are orange.
Delilah: Build your own bundle first.
Delilah: Then you will see Uverse internet
you: i just see packages
Delilah: Besides the internet
Delilah: Do you see where it says Max 18
You: so if I were to get 6/1, what would it cost me?
Delilah: The Elite is $35 a month.
You: what else would I be paying? (was asking about fees, this is where it got interesting…)
Delilah: Just the installation fee, this is a wireless service, no modem needed.
you: uh… wireless???
Delilah: Taxes and fees are less than $6
you: I thought this was DSL
you: I don’t think I’ll be able to get an antenna put on my roof
Delilah: Wireless internet
Delilah: It is through the phone line, yes,
Delilah: You do not need one.
you: is it wireless, or does it use DSL over the phone lines?
Delilah: It is brand new technology, (uh-oh… stand by for clueless marketing BS…)
Delilah: A fiber optic line that runs through your phone line. (wait, WHAT???)
you: well, I don’t have fiber running to my home, just copper
Delilah: Did you check on availability?
Delilah: Our technicians run the wire.
Delilah: As long as it is available at your address,,
you: yes, u-verse was built out in my neighborhood 3 years ago, I remember it well, as you guys left a gaping hole in my front yard for 8 months. (it took me several calls to AT&T, before I found someone who cared enough to inform the contractor that they’d forgotten to fill it back up after redoing the splice. You can see it on Bing Maps Bird’s Eye View. The grass still isn’t quite right)
you: but there’s no fiber here.
you: the technicians told me this was DSL-based technology.
Delilah: I am sorry, I am a bit confused, are you wanting just regular DSL?
you: i need internet service. But there’s no fiber running to my house. (and if there was, 18/1 would be pathetically slow)
Delilah: Would you like a link to check on DSL at your home?
Delilah: There is no need for a wire of anykind.
you: if there’s no need for wire of any kind, how does it get to my house without an antenna on the roof?
Delilah: DSL has never needed an antenna.
Delilah: It runs through the phone line.
you: that’s a wire.
Delilah: It is already there.
you: yes, but that’s not “wireless”
Delilah: You get a wireless modem if you like.
Delilah: You can get signals up to 250 ft.
Delilah: There is no antenna at all.
Delilah: No antenna.
Delilah: The days of antennas are over.
Delilah: Fiber optic lines that run through the phone.
you: then how do you get the signal to my house wirelessly?
Delilah: I am sorry you do not  understand, would you like to call in?
Delilah: Through your phone line.
you: then it’s not wireless.
Delilah: You get a wireless  modem.
you: why would I need a wireless modem, since it comes through the phone lines
Delilah: Since I cannot assist you any further, this chat will now close. Thank for chatting with AT&T.
Thank you for chatting with AT&T today. Have a great day.

OK, I know what she meant, but she’s doing a lousy job of selling the product, since she seems to have a tenuous grasp on what this is in the first place. I don’t think I’ll be getting internet from them anytime soon. At least I can get it without TV now… although I think I’d be better off getting the TV service for 3 months instead of the $150 install fee.

Let’s make this clear, AT&T. U-Verse is NOT a fiber-to-the-home service. It’s a high-speed DSL service (54Mbit) that goes to a fiber-fed node in the neighborhood within the wire limits of the DSL Technology. I know Verizon’s cleaning your clock with FTTH right now, but stop misrepresenting copper-based DSL services as fiber. It just ain’t true. By your definition DSL service has been “fiber” for years in every CO that’s fed by an OC link.

Fixing network priority in Windows

Recently, we made some changes to the DNS infrastructure on our public wireless networks which has had the unintended consequence of breaking things when our laptop users are plugged into the LAN and have their wireless active. Brian and I have wrangled with this in the office, but we simply turned off the wireless as a workaround.

What’s happening is that when connected to both networks, the wireless has a higher priority by default, and so it resolves DNS via that interface. This is problematic when trying to access an internal resource, because our DNS is set to have a default resolution to our website for *.cor.org. To complicate matters further, Arena behaves differently when you’re on the guest network (sends to a forms-based auth portal instead of using IE integrated authentication).

After much digging, I found out how to change interface priority. Here’s the process in XP screenshots (the process is similar in Vista):

1. Open your network connection properties (XP: Via control panel or right-click on Network Places, then select Properties. Vista: Go to Network and Sharing Center and select “Manage Network Connections in the links on the left)

XP Network Properties

XP Network Properties

2. On the menu bar (press Alt to show it in Vista), Select Advanced, then “Advanced Settings”

Advanced Network Properties Dialog (XP)

Advanced Network Properties Dialog (XP)

3. Move the Wired LAN Connection (By Default, “Local Area Connection”) to the top, followed by the wireless connection. Make sure that any VPN virtual adapters come after these, otherwise the VPN will only use the ones above it. This tends to be problematic if you’re using split tunneling, as it will kill any network connection you have.

4. Hit OK, and you’re good to go.

Doh!

So, the rolling hotspot went dead just north of Wichita. All due to a dead battery.

It seems the Mogul, when running WiFi and EVDO, draws more power than my 12V charger can provide. I shoulda brought the 110V charger that came with the unit and plugged it into the power strip in the car. Once we got to the hotel, I borrowed one from Jason Lee, and battery levels increased when running WMWifiRouter on the AC adapter. I think the culprit is the cheap 12V adapter I got at Wal-Mart… it was $7, instead of the $40 that Sprint wanted. It was labeled as a BlackBerry charger, so my guess is there’s a current limiting circuit in there designed to keep the BB from incinerating itself, but is insufficient to power a Mogul running at full bore. I checked on JLee’s charger, and it sources 5V/1A, which is a pretty serious amount of juice.

Liveblogging from the road!

As promised, I’m rolling down I-35, chatting on IRC, and having a webcam chat over MSN with my dad (who uses a Linksys EVDO router for his access at home). Matt is hacking code from his laptop. Clif is paying attention to the road. Since we’re gonna be on interstate highway the whole way, we can pretty much count on a solid EVDO connection the whole way.

I’ve got a running ping going to 4.2.2.2 (a public DNS server). It’s interesting to watch the ping times start to get a little long, then we lose a packet, and then the ping times drop back down to the low 100s. I’m guessing those are tower handoffs. The fact that it works at all is nothing short of miraculous.

Recipe For a Road Trip

Half the Resurrection IT crew is getting into the LovingWaiterMobile and hitting the road tomorrow for MinistryTECH/Spring RoundTable. Being geeks, we need net on the go. Here’s how:

Take one Sprint Mogul (or equivalent):

Add the following:

Version 3.0 Rev.A/GPS/WiMo 6.1 firmware update
WMWiFiRouter software
Google Maps for Windows Mobile
An external power source (not strictly necessary, but highly recommended if you’re going to do this for more than about 20 minutes)

Stir carefully and set up the ad-hoc connection on your client devices, and connect.

The result:

Beats the pants off this for sheer elegance, while providing the same functionality:

So where does Google Maps come in? Simple – for GPS Navigation. Which it can do while dishing up wi-fi to our laptops. Now we just need something that will upload our position to a live map 🙂

Turn the radio on!

(apologies to Randy Travis for lifting a title)

On Friday, our vendor came out to replace the radio on the Southcreek end of our wireless link. (More on that at Clif’s Blog). Long story short, we improved the income side of the link budget by about 16dB.

Got this done just in time for a big rainstorm on Saturday, followed by sloppy wet driving snow on Sunday (attendance was way down, partly due to the weather. Some churches even canceled service. Well, sort of.) Even Kansas City International Airport had its longest closure in history because they couldn’t keep the runways clear long enough. We Canadians are amused by this notion.

Since we had just gotten a shiny new radio and antenna on the Southcreek end, I was curious to see how the link was performing in the snow. I fired up WhatsUp and checked my wireless status page. Both bridges showed more or less the same thing:


(Time of day is along the X-axis, and the Y-axis is received signal level (RSL) in hundredths of a dB, so -3100 is -31dB – due to a firmware update, it only reports in whole dB now, probably because the fractional numbers weren’t nearly as accurate as they were precise )

The pattern struck me as intriguing, because precipitation generally looks a little different, as demonstrated by Saturday’s rainstorm (you can also see the beginning of the snow on the far right):

After checking a few weather sites, I discovered that the downward slope at 6:00 correlated to the beginning of the snow. I was beginning to suspect that at least one of the radomes was plastered in snow. We’d just gotten back from church, where the wind was blowing pretty hard from the northwest, and the Central Campus end was facing almost directly into the wind at the top of the building. I asked my wife if I could run back and do a little weekend science. After realizing that this sort of thing was part of what she signed up for when she married a geek, she sent me on my way with the camera (thank you honey, I love you! *smooch*)

I stopped by the Southcreek office first, and realized that the blue Bridgewave logo on the radomes was going to be very helpful at determining accumulation. This is what Southcreek looked like:

(apologies for the grainy picture, it was taken from about 100 feet away at max digital zoom and then cropped):

Unsurprisingly, there was no significant accumulation on the Southcreek radio, as the radome was facing downwind. This is what the weather looked like towards the other end of the link:

I drove over to the church, where the conditions looked like this:

Notice that the snow is plastered on one side of the trees. The CC radio is facing that direction.

I found a radio and got a hold of George (on the facilities team, also does desktop support for us one day a week) to let me onto the roof. George looked at me funny and wondered why I wanted up on the roof in this craptacular weather. After a brief explanation, he joined me (and wanted to see for himself, too – George is a geek at heart). I get up on the roof, and do a little skating (roofing membrane is nice and slick when wet, never mind when covered in a few inches of sloppy wet snow!)

Sure enough, here’s what the radome looked like:

It was pretty clear what was causing our 30dB signal loss (the link was still up, with about 10dB to go). George went off to find something to clean off the snow (it’s about 15′ from where we were standing, and we didn’t have a ladder). While George was off playing MacGyver, I got to thinking that the snow probably wasn’t stuck on very well, and that some sort of jarring impact might knock it off. If only I had something to throw at it… Like, say, a snowball. My concern was that the snowball would stick to the radome and REALLY attenuate the signal, but I figured this stuff was wet and slushy enough to form into a ball, but was too wet to actually stick to anything (it was above freezing the whole time). So I started chucking snowballs at a piece of gear that costs about the same as a decent new car (I love my job!). On the third try, I made solid contact just below the logo, and the sheet of snow came sliding right off (look below the right loop of the logo for the point of impact):


(by the time I actually got the picture taken, some more snow had accumulated on the radome. Did I mention it was snowing hard?)

I went down to a computer to check on the signal level. Sure enough, the link improved a bunch. (I’ll repost the image here so you don’t have to scroll all the way to the start of the post.) The snowball caused the sharp vertical spike on the right side of the graph. The picture was taken about the spot where it dropped back down a few DB:

I headed back for the roof and found George had MacGyvered a pole from an extendable dusting wand and a wooden broom handle, held together with packing tape. I climbed back up onto the roof and was able to reach the radome with George MacGyver’s snow brush. Cleaning it off gained me a few more dB (second, smaller vertical spike on the graph):

As you can see on the graph, some more snow started accumulating, and then the snow stopped and started melting off. By mid-afternoon, the sun had come out we were back up to our normal signal levels, and there was little evidence left around town that we’d even had a snowstorm. We went from this, where it’s snowing sideways…

…to a beautiful sunny day in a matter of hours. I’m glad I didn’t bother shoveling my driveway, as it had melted clear by the time my wife and I got back from the movies (we went to see Jumper. Good flick, but left a lot of unanswered questions — sequel, anyone? — as well as leaving me with lingering nausea from the jumpy camera work)

I haven’t heard what the attendance was like at the 5:00 service. Morning services were sparse due to weather, but Rev. Junius Dotson from Saint Mark UMC in Wichita was our guest preacher this week and preached a great sermon (Adam is off in Colorado enjoying the real snow with the high schoolers). I hope a bunch of folks got to experience Rev. Dotson at the evening service. The man just has style.

And now, for the ADD folks that lost me about 6 paragraphs ago, here’s a nice little summary:

Wi-Spying at Leadership Institute…

I’ve been keeping an eye on our new wireless (SonicPoints!), and noticed something interesting… This 60-minute image was captured at 10:17. Can you guess what time people started coming into the sanctuary?

I’m guessing that it’s probably a combination of bluetooth from all the cell phones in the room along with different RF dispersion patterns because the room filled up with a lot of very wet objects (humans) which absorbs 2.4GHz quite readily.