Power grid to save El Salvador’s digital divide

Power grid to save El Salvador’s digital divide

26 April 2021 | Alan Burkitt-Gray

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A new wholesale network will provide internet access to El Salvador’s 1.2 million students, plus health services, and connect retail telcos. Alan Burkitt-Gray talks to Uwe Martinz, the man in charge of the project

El Salvador aims to build a wholesale broadband network to connect communities along its Pacific coast and across the country.

One major use will be in education: the company building the network, Coatl, will connect an initial 218 rural schools that will provide broadband services to 54,000 students. The country’s education minister, Carla Hananía de Varela, wants to connect all 1.2 million students within El Salvador’s public education system.

Coatl is using open network architecture, working with Nokia to build a wholesale network that will operate at 100Gbps, using a combination of fibre, microwave and radio base stations that use spare spectrum – so-called white spaces – between TV channels.

Nokia and Coatl are working with a California company, Caban Systems, which will provide lithium-ion energy storage batteries in 50 sites to support the deployment of reliable internet connectivity for the country’s coastal communities.

Uwe Martinz, president and CEO of Coatl, says the project will “evolve towards solar solutions”. Caban’s hardware and software will provide standalone or back-up power on any site.

Coatl says its wholesale business model will provide network security with end-to-end data encryption over its 100Gbps capacity transport layer.

For Martinz, “I always wanted to do what I’m doing right now,” he tells me over a slightly wobbly connection from San Salvador, the capital city of El Salvador, a country of just 6.5 million people tucked between Guatemala, Honduras and the Pacific Ocean in Central America. He’s worked in Latin America for the past 15 years, much of that time for Nokia in Brazil and Mexico. “I got to know the environment and the challenge,” he says.

He’s known about the area for longer, ever since his parents moved to Guatemala, when he was a child, to build a school and teach. Martinz went home to Austria in 1990 to study business at Vienna’s Wirtschaftsuniversität – its university of economics and business – before moving into the telecoms industry.

He worked for the first private mobile operator in Austria, working on the first network with general packet radio service (GPRS), a way of putting data packets on 2G and 3G. “We used a lot of leased line connectivity and I got more and more into engineering,” says Martinz.

Crucially, he came to understand the relationship between business planning and technology: “I worked with the engineers. We knew what we were trying to do, and we had to understand how to do it – from a legal, business, financial and technology point of view. If you don’t understand it, you can’t do something that’s different.”

 

Digital divide

And then he came back to Latin America. “There is a huge digital divide,” he says of the region. “Not just during the pandemic.” It restricts the way people can access opportunities, he explains: “In reality, it’s an issue of not being able to develop the country.” Widespread internet access “is probably the best way you can develop the country”, he says, listing health and education among the main services on which to focus.

For some years Martinz has worked in partnerships between the public sector and private companies, and this is what brought him to work with the national electricity network, CEL – Comisión Ejecutiva Hidroeléctrica del Río Lempa. It needed to build communications networks to link substations, the units that convert from high-voltage electricity used for distribution to the low voltage – 115V, as in North America – that is delivered to customers’ homes, offices and schools.

“It had a microwave network,” says Martinz, “but it started to look for options.” However, the grid company is heavily regulated, so “had no chance” to raise money by itself. “And you can invest a lot in fibre, but how can you operate and maintain it?” he asks.

The result was a partnership to build a fibre network that all other operators can use. “We have a network for everybody who wants to join us,” Martinz says. With the government as the ultimate shareholder in the grid company – albeit indirectly – “it makes sense to use the network to connect everything they need, including healthcare.”.

That wasn’t how it started, though, he smiles. At first every organisation in the public sector wanted its own network – “a kingdom on its own”, as Martinz puts it. But Coatl had already started, and then in 2019 the people of El Salvador elected a new president, Nayib Bukele, for a five-year term of office.

Bukele appointed a cabinet of 16 people, eight men and eight women, including an innovation minister, Vladimir Handal, who has championed the idea of a single wholesale fibre network. The new government started to plan a ten-year digital agenda and considered how the telecoms network could extend to all areas.

“We went to see the innovation minister, and told him that the electricity network reaches everywhere. We told him this is what we need,” says Martinz. “When you have government participation in the network you have a win-win situation. We were not going to let third parties decide who was going to be connected.”

National coverage by 2022

Coatl, incidentally, means “serpent” in the native Nahuatl language of Central America – so how much of its serpent-like fibre network has been built? “About a third,” says Martinz. The target is 80% in 12 to 18 months, and that will give national coverage. “The last part of the network will give us redundancies and more security. So, by the middle of next year we’ll have full national coverage.”

And the aim is that “we’ll provide connectivity to everyone,” he says. “We are providing new models to the whole community.”

Retail providers will build the access layers, says Martinz, but there will be exceptions, he notes. “We started from a wholesale point of view, but there are specific requirements for us to provide services.” He means directly to users, rather than via retail operators. “It’s not our main aim,” he says – but if people want connectivity and there is no retail operator, Coatl will step in.

The core of the network will have a 100Gbps transport layer, upgradeable to 200Gbps. There is “a well-developed network operations centre”, with analytics to aid operations and maintenance.

Pricing “has to make sense”, notes Martinz. “Probably a fixed price but with a lot of different variations”, depending on what customers want. Some operators will just want transport, while others will have service-level agreements or will need layer-2 or layer-3 transport. “There are a lot of different flavours. We need to understand [customers’] needs. We can provide whatever type of transport service you can imagine. We have a lot of options to play with.”

And, he smiles, “we’re building from scratch, so we can consider how to do things better and differently.” The fact he worked at Nokia for eight years means he knows many of the people directly involved, especially in R&D.

At Coatl, “we’re working in the whole ecosystem, to build a partnership with multiple companies, to build connectivity for the whole country,” he says. It will be, “something that closes the gap, and for that you need the will from the government side to change things.”

Equal access

President Bukele believes this is critical to ensure equal access to opportunities, high-quality education, health, security and digital services in the whole country.

The first stage of the implementation, led by innovation minister Handal, will see all those rural schools and their students connected. “That will change the lives of 54,000 people,” says Martinz.

Hananía, the education minister, has included a complete plan for the country’s education system in her 2021-22 plan, with the target of providing broadband to all 1.2 million students in El Salvador’s public education system.

Martinz says: “The project –– driven by the secretary of innovation –– draws a clear path for the digitalisation of El Salvador, both in public and private sector, and will lead to a substantial impact in the development of the country.”

Caban Systems’ role in the project is to provide a hardware and software suite of products to fully integrate standalone or back-up power. Martinz says this “enables us to evolve towards solar solutions and business models based on their cloud-based analytics and AI solutions in a next phase of the project.”