Telecom provider UTS invests millions in new network

POSTED: 11/5/13 12:24 PM

Company wants to offer more products and improve customer service

St. Maarten – Telecom provider UTS has invested between $5 and $9 million in the upgrading of its network, Chief Operating Officer Glen Carty said yesterday. The upgrade is designed to facilitate the shift in the market from voice and text message to data communication.
UTS has revamped its company structure to enable the local branch to react faster to changes in market conditions. “This was a big decision,” Carty says. ‘UTS Eastern Caribbean had to report to UTS Corporate in Curacao. But if something does not work it does not work. There was too much bureaucracy. UTS is now UTS St. Maarten NV with the Eastern Caribbean Holding on top of it. This enables us to take more decisions on the local level and to react faster to what is happening in the telecom market.”

When Carty returned from a two-year stint at UTS corporate in Curacao in March, the first thing he did was look at the network, the service and the market developments.. “We slowed down our usual aggressive marketing efforts because we found that the product we had, while it was not bad, was not the product that UTS is known for. We surveyed our customers and looked at how our network is functioning. It was not bad – because it was still within the parameters of the Bureau Telecommunication and Post – but it was not up to par either.”
This month, UTS celebrates its tenth anniversary in St. Maarten. On November 10, there is going to be a “humongous block party,” Carty says. “Our network is ten, eleven years old. It was built on technology designed for 99 percent for voice and text messaging. Over the years we upgraded as much as we could, but it still was a voice and text message network.”

Carty says that the company was faced with an enormous challenge in St. Maarten’s mountainous environment with in its vicinity Saba, Statia, St. Kitts and Nevis, and Anguilla. “For anyone who deals with wireless technology that is a challenge,” Carty says. “We pay BTP between 5 and 7 million guilders a year for the concession and for the spectrum we use; and we have to use that spectrum properly.
The major shift in the market is caused by the rise of the smart phone. “We have seen an incredible shift from voice to data. The baby boomers are the voice guys, but the XYZ-generation are the data people. The networks were not built to handle that. If we want to remain the leader in technology on this island, and if we want to remain up to international levels, we had no other choice than to build a brand-new network – the 3G/4G-network. We did that and now we are in the final phase of it,” Carty says.

Building the network is one thing, making it work to the satisfaction of customers is another story. “The transmitters of all providers are up on the hills. They transmit with a low amount of watts and the phones would go back up to the transmitters with voice. With data downloads, video and streaming that cannot work anymore.”

Carty says that the traditional cell sites will remain in place to give the umbrella coverage, but UTS also built six additional sites to support services not only in St. Maarten, but also on Saba and Statia. So-called monopoles have been installed in Sucker Garden, Belvedere, Dutch Quarter, Laguna View, Blue Lagoon and on the Vlaun Building.
“We have to deliver coverage and capacity,” Carty says, “Look at the Simpson Bay area, what we call the Las Vegas strip. On a Saturday night, when all the nightclubs are full, people are taking pictures and uploading them to Facebook. That creates at a certain moment total congestion. That is why we have not only improved coverage but also capacity for the traffic to our transmitter sites.”
A major improvement is underway for the first quarter of next year, Carty says. “We now send everything to our cell sites on microwave. Every time Gebe had a trenching project, we put in empty conduits to every one of our sites. In the first quarter of next year, we are going to blow fiber optic cable to all these sites. That will give us endless capacity and it would solve problems with hurricanes. Microwaves are more vulnerable – they can shift.”
This week UTS is going to test the additions to its network. “You have to dry-test, see if all the frequencies match up,” says Leonardo Juan Pedro, manager technical operations for UTS in the Eastern Caribbean. “You are dealing with a combination of different frequencies and you have to make sure that there is no interference.”

Carty says that the local customer base is evenly divided between UTS and competitor TelEm. Growth will not come from grabbing more market share. “We will have to offer our customers new products and services, because telecom is no longer just voice and internet. We are looking at partnerships, locally and regionally. Good customer service is the key to success.”

Carty remains careful when the possible merger with TelEm that has been hanging over the market for years, is brought up. “I have always believed that such a merger is good. We cannot survive alone in St. Maarten. We need a political decision.”
That decision has been in the making for years: successive governments have been talking about a “short-list” of candidates for a merger, but no government has so far taken decisive action. While Carty declined to comment further, the dollars the company has now invested in its network make abundantly clear that UTS is blazing its own trail into the telecom market of the future.

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