Walcott and Hill, back in the day

A look back at better times, when Ronald Walcott (newly appointed TSTT CEO) and George Hill (recently resigned TSTT CEO) were charged with spearheading the company’s introduction of 4G technology for mobile handsets six months after competitor Digicel. Originally published in the T&T Guardian on November 13, 2012

Ronald Walcott and George Hill, TSTT’s men at the controls for the 4G introduction in the company’s device display room. Photo by Mark Lyndersay.
Ronald Walcott and George Hill, TSTT’s men at the controls for the 4G introduction in the company’s device display room. Photo by Mark Lyndersay.

Give Bmobile this at least. Their media training for their executives keeps the message about 4G consistent. As far as anyone worth interviewing at the company is concerned, they were first to market with 4G when they implemented their WiMax network and that, as they say, is all.

But in a surprisingly frank conversation about how they brought a true mobile broadband solution to market, George Hill, Chief Technology Officer and Ronald Walcott, Executive Vice president for Bmobile and Retail Distribution explained on how they got from there to last week’s introduction of a HSPA+ network.

‘There’was several years ago, when the company realised it was running an end-of-life 2G network on hardware from Nortel, a company that was going out of business.
There would be no upgrade path to 3G and the company would have to bite down on a particularly bitter pill to upgrade the entire GSM network to newer technology.

Meanwhile, they had this 2.5GHZ spectrum allocation in their possession.
So the WiMax network was born, a 2MB capable wireless technology that could be translated into WiFi signals, but as CDMA technology, could never truly integrate with the new smartphones coming to market (BitDepth on WiMax).

The company began responding to the demand for such capabilities with small mobile dongles that did that allowed smartphone users to connect to the WiMax network via WiFi. The take-up was so swift that the system soon hit its “design capacity,” and sales of the dongles choked off.
Meanwhile, their Irish competition had stolen a march on them, announcing, six months ago, a HSPA+ network that met the needs of smartphone users.

It was time to swallow that pill. The company began what Hill calls a “forklift change,” removing everything from Nortel and replacing it with new radios and hardware from Huawei.
“It’s tower work,” George Hill explained. “It can’t be done at night or in the rain. Some sites took five minutes, and others took a day. We’ve had to tear out the foundation of the house while living in it.”
The hardware on the towers was replaced in related groups, but that still meant shutting down service for some customers.

“We also had to take interim steps to bridge the differing equipment protocols,” Hill explained. “We put our lives on hold to work all day, all week on this. It’s not something you want to do many times in your life, but when you have 15 people in your office on a Sunday morning ready to get at it, well, that’s something special.”

While George Hill was leading his infrastructure team, marketing was beating the bZone drum offering “4G class,” free WiFi to the company’s customers in popular liming spots.
The bZones are primarily fed by fibre, but in remote locations and at events, the feed can also come from the WiMax network.

“The Ariapita Avenue mesh,” says Hill, “is five kilometres long and fed by fibre at both ends.” That bZone installation is served by at least 20 WiFi transmitters and at high demand times can offer as much as 1.5GB of data bandwidth to serve surges brought by event like Carnival Tuesday, offloading demand from the 4G mobile network to the wired network via WiFi.

The arrival of HSPA+ adds another layer to the infrastructure that the company has been implementing and TSTT is positioning the mix of broadband offerings as a holistic solution for mobile broadband customers, the “more than 4G” that’s part of their launch.

The company has, to date, switched 260 of its 406 cell sites from obsolete Nortel gear to Huawei hardware and moved 85 percent of its network traffic over to the new network.
Bmobile customers served by those cell sites will experience faster Edge network speeds and better call service, at least within the new network.

“We don’t see it [HSPA+] as a premium solution,” says Ronald Walcott. “We see it as necessary to get users into the mobile broadband space.”

And what about the iPhone 5?
“We’ve already sold out on the iPhone 5,” Ronald Walcott said last week, proud of the aggressive pricing plans for the new handset, but also painfully aware of issues that cropped up early in the launch with iPhone 4 customers who wanted to upgrade and found that the company had no good news for them.
“I was up until 11pm last night working on that and a new FAQ has gone out to our teams that deals with that.”

There are a range of options for upgrading, but be warned that there are no trade-ins and if you’re still under contract, you’ll be expected to pay the difference on the phone subsidy before switching from your older TSTT iPhone 3gs/4 to the iPhone 5.

There are no penalties to switching from an older plan to a 4G plan, but customers should settle all arrears on their bills first before switching from their existing plans to a new iPhone 4G plan. MyHotSpot package users will be expected to return the device as part of the switch.