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Plundering pirates

Alex McDonald at today’s discussion.

by Latoya Burnham

Movie pirates are not only hitting cinemas hard, they are also having a devastating impact on the main Internet provider in the island, LIME.

In an interview today, as LIME launched a forum with Government at Hilton Barbados to explore ways forward for information and communication technologies in the country, CEO Alex McDonald noted that some of the challenges customers have been complaining about were not as simple as might be believed.

He said part of the challenge they found on investigating some of the Internet outages in particular, was customers using their services to download and burn movies illegally.

Even with this revelation, manager of the Globe Drive-In, Zaimool Ali, explained that the issue was one that cinema and movie entertainment establishment owners here were now not even sure how to deal with.

Going back as far as the family’s closure of the Globe Cinema last year, Ali said they had noticed a decline in patronage at the cinema with customers even indicating they had already bought a burnt version of the newest movies being shown.

The situation became so critical, he said that they wanted to close as early as September but decided to hold on until year end.

“We started to feel the pinch in like September, and that September at the Globe, it run us right down and we decide to keep it open until the last day of December.

“This year too [at the drive-in], September was just as bad. We start[ed] to feel it affect the drive-in but not as bad as the indoor theatres,” said Ali, who explained the three remaining venues, Olympus Theatres, Limegrove Cinemas and his own cinema worked closely together.

Although the Globe Drive-In had not been as hard hit as the theatres, he explained nevertheless that last month was a difficult time.

“At the drive-in, we would have had about a 25 per cent drop. It drop real bad and we were even planning to lay off staff or give them a four-days-in and a four-days-off, but then we decide, yuh know what, these people have been with us so long we can’t do it. So we absorbed everything.

“The DVDs really give us trouble. We deal closely with Limegrove and the Olympus. We work together because we show the same movies and they complain as well. We tried [to do something about it], especially Phil Harden tried reporting it to prosecute but it never came through.

“Although they are not supposed to download and sell DVDs, you walk through town and de fellas just selling, it’s outta control… I don’t think we can do anything about it, but I would love to do something,” said the drive-in owner.

While Ali’s tale puts a human face and gives a sense of the real human impact the black market DVDs are having on local jobs and establishments, for the telecoms agency LIME, it has not been any easier.

McDonald explained that their own investigations at points showed that a few of the customers were using most of the available Internet bandwidth.

“From time to time there will be a challenge. We had a recent one where we had some Internet outage when we had a couple of customers doing some things that we had to talk to them about, which had clogged up and caused a severe outage.

“On the other issues that we have, we do know that we have a few hundred customers who, because of where they are on our copper plant, they are experiencing slow speeds. We know that we have to improve the experience there, but equally as I have said over the years, we do have some customers who are doing things and are causing most of our customers to have an issue.

“When we did our last [checks] six months ago, we noticed that about five per cent of our customers were using 80 per cent of our capacity. Now what would those customers do, was the big question. Many times when you go and you sponsor your favourite movie bought in a car park, that is what they are doing. They are downloading excess capacity and they are burning CDs and some people are doing all manner of things which they shouldn’t be doing and we have had to talk to them and say you can’t ruin the experience for all of our customers,” the CEO stated.

Some other challenges, he maintained, have not been of LIME’s making, especially with regard to the recent occurrences of theft of copper, and three instances where trucks with large booms dragged down lines which knocked out several hundred customers.

On sunny days, he explained, crews were able to do a lot of repairs, but on rainy days safety concerns often slowed staff.

“If you open a line in the middle of the rain, you are introducing water and water is not good when it comes to copper, electricity and those kinds of things. Not because we are going to get shocked and die but because it forms connections between things that should not be connected and it shorts out things and interrupts speeds.

“The other critical thing we have found is that 40 to 50 per cent of our customer faults are faults that reside within the premises of the customer. Ninety per cent of our customers now have wireless modems. They don’t remember to put a password and as a result neighbour, friends and people out in the street pick up their signal and use it and degrade their services.

“There are others that have been having slow speeds which we know are our problem, so we are fixing those. But of the vast numbers that we have seen, we know there is a mixture of things we can do and things our customers have done, but we will continue working with them.”

McDonald said there was no way to forecast two decades ago that the demand would have been as great as it is now or would have grown as quickly, with the service being used for all kinds of things.

He said the options to deal with demand was either faster speeds, which was not necessarily the best option since most customers would not notice the difference between 24MB and 50MB, or increased capacity, something they were already piloting.

“On nearly every service platform we have tens of thousands of customers. We are now trialling 50MB to some of our customers and some are trialling on 60MB and some on 20MB. The challenge of our business is that whenever we do new developments, it means we need to do them on the fly. We can’t shut down broadband and say for the next week we are going to shut it down so that we can build out new capacity. We have to do it on the fly and most of that work tends to be done around two or three in the morning when we have [fewer] customers on,” he said, stressing that there would be challenges associated with that kind of upgrade.

“Ten years ago, no one ever thought that you would need more than 2MB to do anything. Why would you need more than that because the machines couldn’t handle it, the machines couldn’t handle it, the modems couldn’t handle it, nothing could handle it.”

It was one of the reasons, he noted, that they had gone back to stakeholders like Government, and in coming months to the private sector with fora like the one today to get feedback on the services and to create innovations. He said it was in economically challenging times like this that such moves and partnerships were critical to not just keep pace, but to grow together.

“We live in a fast paced world. Where we are trying to position the company now is not to be two years ahead, but to try and anticipate where is the demand for data going, and what we can tell you is that nobody in the world knows. No one knows where data will end up, what is the acceptable speed, what is the acceptable service… The important things to be aware of, is that you need to be safe on the Internet also, not only fast but safe…”

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