Wireless Installation in the Jungles of Laos

In the summer of 2002, we had the opportunity to install a wireless network in a newly constructed gold mine in the remote jungles of Laos. It was really an adventure, Laos being one of the most underdeveloped countries in the world. Here's a brief synopsis of our trip, including some comical (although nearly deadly) mishaps. Pictures of our excursion can be viewed by clicking here .

Just getting to the gold mine took about 3 days: 2 days by air to Bangkok and then a short plane hop to Vientiane (the capital of Laos) and a day and a half by pickup truck over mostly bumpy, muddy dirt roads. The Lao people were friendly, but very cutoff from the rest of the world. Most of the countryside was jungle and rice paddies until we got to the mountains near the mining camp. One of the first things we were told to look out for were UXO's - unexploded ordinance leftover from the Viet Nam War. UXO teams had to pick over the ground with a fine tooth comb, defusing and removing old bombs, some of them quite live, before any construction work could begin. You can see pictures of some of these bombs on the web site.

The mine has a population of about 600 workers including a group of 50 or so Australians brought in to manage the camp. They had hired us to install a 2.4 meter satellite dish to receive and transmit IP traffic, to install a wireless network in the camp to distribute the signal to the various buildings there, and to install some IP telephones which would connect back to our computerized PBX in Florida. Although my partner, Mike and I and are fairly experienced with wireless and Internet, we had never installed a satellite dish before (though we had seen it done) and our IP telephony experience was fairly limited.

We only had 4 days to complete the job, so we were happy to learn that the satellite dish had arrived at the camp early and the 2 Australians who had hired us had done the physical installation of the dish and the mount prior to our arrival. That meant that as far as the satellite was concerned, we only had to install the satellite transmitter, feed horn, satellite modem and cables and point the dish. When we tried to point the 2.4 meter dish, however, we ran into a problem. We needed to point it approximately 23 degrees above the horizon (a low "look angle"), but the pipe it was mounted on only came up from its concrete base about 36 inches, so when we angled the dish down to about 35 degrees, the bottom of it hit the ground. After reviewing the plans for the pipe mount, we learned that the mount was designed for a roof-top, so that the dish edge could extend beyond the lip of a building roof. It was never intended to be embedded in a concrete base on the ground. We needed to raise the dish at least another 30 inches to aim it correctly, but the camp didn't have any pipes of the right diameter or strength. What they did have, however, was a good carpenter who fashioned a pipe extension out of the hard wood of a native tree for us! You can see the pictures of this make-shift mount on the web site.

The most amazing mishap we encountered involved the wireless setup at the central hub. We needed to mount our base station radio (a NEMA box with 2 lucent radios and Karlnet software) next to the Communications Hut - a small trailer powered by generator that housed our router, satellite modem and network switch. We originally planned on using a 20 foot pipe mount, but the line-of-sight to some of the client buildings was not nearly as good as we were told and we needed more height. A 50-foot tree with few branches and a fairly straight trunk right next to the Comms Hut seemed the perfect candidate. They brought us a crane from the construction camp and hoisted Mike up near the top of the tree where he spent a good hour screwing 2 flat panel antennas and the NEMA box to the tree trunk. We were pretty proud of our installation and the height that it gave us to reach the other buildings. We showered off (the camp and much of Laos as a whole is a very muddy place) and three of us returned that evening to the Comms Hut to point the satellite dish and bring the satellite circuit up. We had to do this at night since we were 11 hours ahead of our Florida office with which we had to coordinate. We had an Iridium satellite phone for communications which worked reasonably well (at $2/minute). After about an hour and a half of tweaking the dish position and feed horn polarization we had a pretty good lock on the satellite and were told by the Florida group that they'd call back in 10 minutes for the final "turnup" of the circuit.

We were pretty excited since we hadn't done a satellite install before and considered this the most uncertain aspect of our venture. About 5 minutes passed when we were a sharp "CRACK". At first none of us knew what the noise was, but a second later a series of crackles and creaks followed and Mike, who was the only one standing several feet away from the Comms Hut yelled, "Look out! The tree!". Roy, one of the Australians, and I didn't have time to ask "What tree?". We could hear it coming down on the Comms Hut from the opposite side that we were standing against. Roy was near the door and dove inside the trailer. I just had time to flatten myself up against the outer wall of the trailer and hope I didn't get crushed. The tree landed smack on top of the trailer, and stretched across it, nearly puncturing a water purification tank and coming within feet of our satellite dish. Nobody was hurt, although the impact shattered the flourescent lights in the trailer which landed all over Roy. It also knocked out our power for about a day and damaged the trailer's AC fan. And, yes, of course, it was the very tree we had mounted our wireless setup on that very day. About 10 feet up the trunk we could see the tree was all eaten out by termites - the wireless gear must've been the straw that broke the camel's back. Amazingly, the wireless equipment was intact, still on the tree and landing past the trailer just a couple feet shy of the water tank. You can see the pictures on the web site. When we called back to Florida and told them to scrap the plans for turning up the circuit that night because a tree knocked out our power, they didn't believe it.

The next day we were the talk of the camp. They wanted to use Mike to clear the trees in the mine field by hugging them, so they would fall down the next day. What happened the next day made that idea seem a little less funny. The camp had a lot of construction resources, and at our request, a pipe welder bonded 2 20 foot pipes to give us a 40 foot mast for our new, termite-proof mount. We installed it that day alongside the comms hut. There was a clump of small trees near the pipe mount that threatened to block our signal, so we asked to have them removed the next day. Of course we heard all the jokes about how we should just put an antenna on them so they'd fall by themselves. Well, that afternoon during a heavy rain, the most obstructive of the trees did fall, all by itself, and, yes, it landed on the Comms Hut. (We have those pictures on the web site, too). Fortunately, this one didn't do any damage, except to increase the barrage of jokes from the camp workers, and we did get the satellite circuit turned up that night, and the wireless connections the the next day.

We did, in fact, eventually succeed - the IP phone quality was quite good, even with the 750 msec latency of the circuit which was routed via satellite to Germany and then via fiber to New York and down to our NOC in Florida. We didn't know we had succeeded till several days after we left, however. Despite all our careful planning (shipping 16 boxes of equipment through customs into Laos wasn't easy), we had, of course, forgotten one little piece of vital equipment: an AUI->RJ45 transciever to plug into the back of our Cisco router. We were basically able to verify we had satellite connectivity and Internet connectivity all the way to the router. We also verified wireless connectivity to the 3 sites we setup. But without the transceiver, we had no way to plug the Cisco router into our hub and bring the Internet to the wireless network and IP telephone system. While a transceiver costs about $20 or $30 anywhere in the U.S., it was unheard of in Laos and had to be ordered from Thailand, arriving well after we left.

Fortunately, all the mine workers had to do with the transceiver when they finally got it was to plug it in, and then they had telephones and Internet. The Australian contractors returned later and replaced the 40 foot mast with a 90 foot mini-tower for better wireless coverage. I'll post those pictures when I get them. You can also read about our trip in this NetworkWorld Article.

Now they've asked if we want to do a similar install in the Congo. I'm not sure we will, but if we do we'll definitely bring our hard hats.

Tom Fantacone
Vice President
Nationwide Computer Systems, Inc.