It has been a while since I wrote a technical post, and I’ve had a few people ask me about GPRS service in Liberia lately, so I thought it was time to take another look at the Liberian wireless data landscape. Plus I recently bought a Thinkpad X200 with a built in Ericsson F3507g Mobile Broadband Minicard Modem. So I wana talk about that too, see the picture on the left.
The last time we talked about cellular data Liberia’s two biggest carriers were running free trails of their data services. Cellcom, Liberia’s number 2, took things up a notch with EDGE service. Now those trails are over, and you have to pay. Cellcom offers their EDGE service for $60 USD a month for unlimited usage. Lonestar offers GPRS for $1 USD an hour, or a fixed monthly rate for all you can download. I don’t know what it is, but I assume it’s $60 a month too. I’m not really sure how I feel about charging for data by the time used. This just gives them an incentive to give you a slower connection, not a faster one.
I’ve been using Cellcom in my laptop. So far it’s been really good. I’m able to get enough signal to connect all over Monrovia. It’s usually pretty reliable, though there have been times when the service has dropped out for 30 minutes to an hour. Sometimes I have to shut off the modem and turn it back on to get my connection back. But this is pretty much standard for any ISP in Liberia. The speed is pretty good for Liberia. It’s faster in the mornings and evenings, when the load on the network is lighter. As mentioned above, it does drop out occasionally. If I have to do a lot of uploading or downloading I’ll wait till I’m at a place with wifi connected to Comium’s internet service. I’ve also had trouble sending email in Outlook when I’m using Cellcom. I don’t know if they have the SMTP SSL port blocked or if there’s some DNS weirdness going on with my mail servers, but I won’t be able to send a message all day, and then someone will tell me they got 8 copies of the email. I don’t know if Outlook is screwing up or if it’s the network. Both my gmail and work email accounts seem to have trouble. But when I can send email, it’s super nice to do so from wherever I am. I can always receive email just fine.
Setting up the Ericsson F3507g to work in Liberia was really easy. The F3507g comes unlocked, so I didn’t need to worry about that. I used the Access Connections software that came with my Thinkpad to configure the F3507g to work on Cellcom’s network. The only thing you have to do is set the APN (Access Point) to web.cellcomnet.net. To do this I brought up the Wireless Connection Status window and then went to Wireless WAN tab-> Modify Wireless WAN Settings. Then for Select WAN Settings choose “Custom Settings” and then click Edit Settings to set the APN.
I’ve also been helping a NGO here to do survey work on GPRS enabled smart phones. They have surveyors in each of the 15 counties sending data in to a server in Monrovia sitting behind a VSAT with a static IP address. So we needed to find a carrier for all of this. We first approached Cellcom, but they weren’t terribly helpful. We wanted a list of each cell tower they had that supported GPRS/EDGE and the city, town, or village closest to it. But all they could do was give us a Google earth print out with little bull’s-eyes where they had towers. This was nice to get an idea of where the towers were, but we wanted to know which township to tell the survey teams to head to, to send data. Not, “go towards this red dot that doesn’t have a name on a map.” We asked several times if they had a list and they said no. I found that hard to believe. Do they just sit around at the end of the month wondering where to send the diesel to run the generators at their towers? “Well Joe, you take 500 gallons to this dot somewhere in Sinoe County, and I’ll head to this dot between Gbarnga and Ganta.” I doubt it. This is what happens when there is a disconnect between sales and engineering.
We then went to Lonestar where the lady at the sales department reached under her desk and handed us a list of every town Lonestar had a tower in. How hard was that? We were also won over by their $1 an hour versus $60 a month since we seriously doubted that a little 32kb survey was going to take 60 hours to upload. Though we did end up going with one Cellcom SIM for Grand Kru County since they are the only operator in that county.
So far things have worked well. Though to date I don’t think we were ever able to get data to send from Grand Kru or Maryland counties using Cellcom. We were able to use Lonestar in Harper Maryland County. It seems that every cell tower isn’t running GPRS/EDGE after all despite what we were told by the carriers.
On the whole I think things are moving along very nicely for data in Liberia. Coverage is still limited to major population centers, and the service is still out of the reach of most Liberians, but being able to send data quickly around the country does make it possible for aid organizations, donors, and the Liberian government to make decisions with timely and accurate data. And this is good for everyone.