Could you live without the internet? Could you live without a telephone? Even for just one month?
Desperate for a phone line, I used to drive three hours on rough dirt roads to insist that Andinatel, the phone company activate the equipment collecting dust in Chugchilán.
It had been five years since starting to build the Black Sheep Inn in the rural Andes and telephone service still did not exist. Finally in 1999 my wife and I were happily honored as ‘god-parents’ at a ribbon cutting ceremony when Andinatel finally installed the phone system. A year later I purchased five of the 16 private lines that Andinatel offered the community; two of them for the Black Sheep Inn, one for the local school, one for the health clinic and one for the new rural police department. I knew that the Black Sheep Inn would need a telephone line and another one for internet. I also knew that local institutions needed basic infrastructure, like telephone lines.
‘God-parenting’ the phone has been like raising a child. I have often repaired lines when trucks and buses accidentally pulled them down. It would take weeks or months for Andinatel to send a repair truck. I have discovered that the Black Sheep Inn’s two phone lines are coded white-gray and white-brown and I now know all the color codes for the other 14 lines. I have also learned how to cross lines, make party lines and that the phone lines that we donated to the school and police department have been disconnected because they have not paid their bills. The villagers of Chugchilán have often seen me at the top of a 30 foot ladder talking to Andinatel technicians through alligator clips while trouble shooting ‘issues’.
I was even authorized to cut down 10 large eucalyptus trees on a neighbor’s property with a chainsaw because they were interfering with the town’s microwave phone signal. My friendly neighbor insisted that I pay for the trees. In the end I am still not sure if the signal actually improved once the trees were cleared.
On the bright side, once phone service arrived and I designed and uploaded a website, Black Sheep Inn’s business grew 80%. The phone and internet have made living rurally much easier; not just as a business tool, but also making it possible to research and investigate virtually anything and most importantly, to stay connected to friends and families from the remote Andes.
After several years of using over 6000 minutes per month and paying high phone bills for what proved to be unreliable service (the lines would go out for hours and days at a time and the connection is often filled with noise and static); out of frustration, I started to investigate alternative internet connections.
Although still expensive, VSAT (Very Small Aperture Terminal) satellite internet antennas have come down in price over the last few years. New systems in Ecuador cost approximately US$2000 plus US$200+ per month depending on bandwidth. In 2004 a tourist drove through Chugchilán with a VSAT dish strapped to the hood of his pick-up truck/camper. He was able to aim the antenna and connect to the internet from almost any location. I was extremely impressed and curious as to how this whole system worked. Apparently he had consulted for a VSAT company in South America and the dish and modem had been given to him as compensation.
I kept in touch with him over the next months and started the process of investigating what types of VSAT antennas were available in Ecuador. Investigating online with unreliable dial-up was extremely frustrating. I asked friends in the states to help me out by surfing the internet and consolidating their research into emails. Second hand information never seemed to focus on the peculiar needs of the Black Sheep Inn.
In June 2005 I signed a contract to purchase a VSAT antenna in Ecuador for only US$1600 with a monthly rate of US$65! One week later, the tourist with the antenna on his truck emailed me that he had found a used VSAT for sale for half that price.
Oh well, I was locked into a contract so the timing was simply bad. After waiting a month for guaranteed installation, I started to wonder if something was wrong. The company in Quito from whom I had bought the VSAT system said that they still needed to configure the platform on the satellite. I had this image of an Ecuadorian computer geek in a space suit sitting on a ‘platform’ trying to fix the satellite with a screw driver and hammer. After patiently waiting 3 months and still no platform the VSAT company refunded my money. Back to square one and the dial-up connection was really starting to hurt.
At this point I began to pursue the used VSAT equipment, but there were several problems:
1) The antenna was currently located in the USA,
2) The antenna was second hand and I would have to buy it sight unseen,
3) I would have to install the antenna and aim it myself, and
4) The seller wanted me to sign a binding contract in the USA for 3 years of service.
I do not want explain the turmoil back and forth to make this purchase, but I bought it. Finally in February 2006 my brother and family visited Ecuador and brought down the used antenna and modem in their luggage. I struggled for a month to find and fabricate missing pieces, install, and accurately aim the dish at a satellite the size of a refrigerator located 35,000 kilometers away. Truthfully the installation went smoothly and the Black Sheep Inn was online by mid-March 2006! YIPPEE!!
19 months later (October 2007) the satellite signal failed. Because the VSAT was bought second hand, there was no tech support. I discovered that I actually owned the same piece of equipment that had come through Chugchilán on the tourist’s pick-up truck back in 2004. The VSAT had been given to him with no monthly payments and his contract stated that the VSAT was not allowed to ever be moved from where it had been originally installed, therefore it was ‘illegal’ communications!
So, just as I asked at the beginning of this article, “What would you do without internet for a month, especially when you have grown to depend on it for business and personal use?” Ironically, when the VSAT signal failed, so did both telephone lines. Back to square one. Black Sheep Inn survived, but tensions and stress skyrocketed.
The original company in Quito still has no platform, so in the end I contracted a new VSAT system here in Ecuador and pay US$220 per month. I calculate that if the Black Sheep Inn uses the internet approximately 12 hours per day that the price comes to one cent per minute. I can have two computers in the office and one in the lodge online, plus wireless for guests. The connection is not fast, about 128 kbps up and down, but it is reliable… so far. I am crossing my fingers. On the bright side, cellular phone reception started in this area in 2007, but of course the only places I can get a signal is standing in the urinal of one of the composting toilets or flying on the zipline!
Modern electronic communications definitely makes the planet smaller and more accessible; it can help people cross cultural divides, but only if you have reliable access.