Equipment failure paralyzes Tuvalu radio

In the tiny Pacific nation of Tuvalu (formerly the Ellice Islands), Pusinelli Laafai is unhappy. Although he is the manager of Radio Tuvalu, Laafai is powerless to restore his country’s one-year-old FM network, which went off the air due to equipment failure at eight remote transmitter sites. 

“When we first switched from AM to satellite FM everyone was very happy with the quality,” said Laafai. “Then it all fell apart.”

At each transmitter site, the story is the same. A power supply module in the broadcast downlink receiver overheated in the tropical conditions. Even though the fault was identified before the project was completed in September last year, it still has not been fixed. 

The problem is not entirely technical, however. Geographic isolation, poor communication, and a lack of accountability have also played a part.

Aid project

The FM network is one component of a donation by the Australian Agency for International Development (AusAID). Under the scheme, AusAID gave the Tuvalu Telecommunications Corporation a satellite earth station (7.5 meter dish) for the main island of Funafuti, and a smaller earth station (4.6 meter dish) for each of eight distant atolls. The primary aim of the plan was to provide telecommunications. In what project manager Eric Jones describes as “an afterthought,” AusAID also gave Tuvalu Telecom an FM broadcast transmitter and associated equipment for each of the distant atolls. 

The broadcast equipment was to be used by Radio Tuvalu, which is a government department. Significantly, the equipment would be owned and maintained by the common carrier Telecom, which is a state-owned commercial venture.

Under the new arrangement, Radio Tuvalu lost control of its long range transmissions and became reliant on Telecom, but it also stood to gain in several ways. 

Unlike the old AM transmission, satellite FM would deliver a clear signal to the country’s most distant islands. (Critics noted, however, that fishermen at sea would no longer hear the station, which had been an important vehicle for sending messages from shore.) 

Audio quality would improve immediately and stereo would be possible once the studios were upgraded. 

Most importantly, Radio Tuvalu could retire its aging 5-kilowatt AM transmitter, saving almost US$30,000 a year in electricity charges. Instead, it would pay approximately half that amount to Tuvalu Telecom for use of the 10-watt transmitters on outer islands and a channel on the Intelsat 177 satellite. 

Funafuti residents would tune to a new 20-watt FM transmitter donated by Canada. 

According to Radio Tuvalu’s chief engineer, John Sammons, FM remains on the air in Funafuti but the last of the distant islands lost its FM signal in February. 

“A very expensive broadcast system is silent,” he said. “Telecom is waiting for a solution to a simple problem.” 

A simple problem

Bruce Boardman of LSE Technology, the Australian company that installed the satellite and FM equipment, agrees that the technical problem is relatively simple. Boardman said his company designed modified power supplies for the US-made Comstream downlink receivers so they could be powered from Telecom batteries. “The receivers were designed to run off 220 volts or 110 volts AC,” he said. “We converted them to run off 48 volts DC.” 

There is no AC power on the outer islands and Telecom batteries are charged by 500-watt solar panels. 

Boardman, who spent a year in Tuvalu setting up the system, found the modified power modules began overheating soon after installation. LSE sent more modules and they failed too.

“Yes, it’s a design problem,” said Boardman, “but we’ve come up with a supply that is three times larger, and also developed a new vented enclosure.” He said the redesigned power modules were on a ship and should arrive in Tuvalu soon. 

But landing the components in Tuvalu will not be the end of the problem. None of the eight outer islands has an airstrip. The country’s inter-island ship is slow and unreliable. 

“It is supposed to do a trip every once every six weeks – but it rarely makes it as often as that,” Boardman said. “It’s possible to wait up to three months.” 

Boardman also pointed out that a Tuvalu Telecom technician may only get two hours ashore before the ship departs for the next island. 

Poor communication 

Communications are a problem too. When informed by Radio World that all eight transmitters were off the air, Boardman said he thought only four sites had gone silent. A spokesperson for AusAID, Geoff Adlide, confirmed the aid agency had been “hamstrung” by a lack of communication with Tuvalu. Telecom was supposed to send monthly reports during the first year after the system was commissioned, but only two have arrived. “Apparently the person at Telecom who writes these things is off on a training course,” Adlide said. 

Jones, a consultant hired by AusAID to design the Tuvalu system and manage the project, agreed with Adlide. 

“Telecom must take responsibility for operating their network and that doesn’t appear to be happening,” said Jones. “The fact that they allow all their technicians to go overseas on training courses at the same time means jobs cannot get done.” 

Sammons said even Radio Tuvalu was not informed by Telecom when the remote sites went off the air. “Without knowledge we are deceived into thinking that everything is functioning smoothly.” 

Jones said he discovered in April that the system was not working. After informing AusAID, he thought the situation had been addressed. 

“It’s been twelve months since the problem was discovered,” he said. “I am concerned to hear that the power modules still haven’t arrived.” 

Jones suggested that LSE could have flown an employee to Funafuti with the parts, rather than sending them by sea. 

In keeping with AusAID policy, the final payment to LSE will not be made unless the system is working properly one year after completion. Adlide said an AusAID consultant engineer would go to Tuvalu soon to carry out the final inspection and would probably install the new power modules while visiting each island. If the system works then, the project will be considered complete. 

Superior system

Boardman promised the downlink receivers would be working soon. “This is just a minor glitch. It’s the only part of the system that’s failed,” he said. Sammons was optimistic too. “Outer island listeners reported that FM was louder, clearer, and better sounding. There wasn’t one report of poor reception.” 

Although the LSE power modules could not handle the conditions, Sammons felt the reliability of “off the shelf” equipment had been excellent.

But Sammons had a few words of advice for other stations considering satellite linking. “Contract carefully with the provider and look at the opportunities and the economic pitfalls,” he said, adding “We have a good system with a few bugs that will be solved in ‘island time’.”

* First published 15 October 1997 in the International Edition of Radio World