Rabih Moussa: Wireless in the Wild

Dream Jobs 2007

4 min read

Rabih Moussa climbs off an Air Inuit turboprop in the tiny subarctic town of Schefferville in northern Quebec. He’s wearing a long black leather jacket, with a laptop bag slung over his shoulder—not exactly standard attire in these frigid climes. The high-end electronics inside his flat silver case had raised eyebrows at the X-ray machines back in Montreal. ”Airport security thought I was a terrorist,” Moussa says, smiling cheerfully.

Moussa, who was born and raised in Lebanon, is in fact a satellite telecommunications expert with OmniGlobe Networks, a Montreal-based start-up that specializes in providing wireless Internet access to far-flung parts of the globe. His suspicious aluminum briefcase contains a spectrum analyzer, for identifying signals that may be interfering with a network’s reception. For much of the last year, he’s been upgrading the feeble Internet networks of the Naskapi Nation, an indigenous group living on and around the 55th parallel, about 1100 kilometers south of the Arctic Circle, in Canada.

Last June, Moussa installed two networks in Schefferville and the neighboring town of Kawawachikamach. Satellite networks can more affordably provide broadband Internet service to areas so remote that running fiber-optic or copper cables would be prohibitively expensive. He has managed the project from start to finish, from planning the network to tightening the nuts and bolts that hold the dish antenna in place. Along the way, he also tries to give locals a crash course in network management.

It’s a long way from Lebanon. Moussa left his homeland in 1997, after finishing his degree in microelectronics at the Lebanese University, in Beirut. Disenchanted with the limited opportunities in Lebanon’s telecom sector, he moved to Montreal, where in 2001 he earned a master’s degree in telecommunications at the École de Technologie Supérieure.

After spending two years at other satellite wireless companies, he joined OmniGlobe. ”Working for small companies gives you a chance to try new things,” he says. For instance, he is developing a telephone switch that connects voice over Internet Protocol (or VoIP) calls to the traditional landline network. He hopes that it will allow OmniGlobe to easily customize features, such as the number of extensions, beyond the limits of off-the-shelf switches. He also mans the troubleshooting hotline for all of his company’s installations, fielding calls from Nigeria and Cyprus, among other places.

850 population of the Naskapi Nation

This past October found Moussa setting up a third network on Naskapi territory, next to a power dam. Back in his Montreal office, he had figured out such things as how much bandwidth to allocate for VoIP and how much for Web access and how strong the signal should be to create a robust link. Shaping traffic to create a smooth Internet experience in spite of the high latency that is characteristic of a satellite link can require subtle adjustments. Moussa also assembled an exhaustive list of every piece of equipment he might need.

”It’s a whole new world up here,” he says as he loads boxes full of equipment onto the back of a mud-splattered pickup truck. ”I have the chance to go camping, to go fishing. I would never have otherwise met the First Nations people.”

Two other ”southerners” and one Naskapi are along for the scenic 2-hour drive to the dam. The road winds through vast stretches of stubby evergreens and past the blasted-out red craters of abandoned iron mines. Power lines run along the bumpy road, and the utility poles are topped with osprey nests.

The antenna awaits them in a dirt lot near two houses and a trailer, surrounded by forest and ground covered in bright yellow lichen. If left there, the dish could easily be buried in snow or damaged by the swat of a wayward bear, so Moussa wants to set it up on higher ground near the power station. There the terminal connected to the dish could be stored indoors. With help, he wedges the dish onto the bed of the pickup and slowly drives the 100 meters to the power station. Railway tracks run across the lip of the dam, dividing the power station from the icy reservoir.

To accommodate the dish, the dam technicians had constructed a platform that juts out over the water spitting from the turbines. Using U-bolts, they start to lock the antenna’s base to the platform. A bolt slips from Moussa’s grasp, and he watches, dismayed, as it falls through the platform’s grating and then another 40 meters down into the frothy pool at the base of the dam. He tenses for a moment, then counts the remaining bolts in his toolbox and plucks out an extra. ”If you forget something—or drop something—you can’t just go to the store to buy another one,” he notes.

He had hoped that the power station could protect the antenna from the brutal wind, but that is quickly proving not to be the case. To compound the problem, spray gusting from the reservoir is landing on the exposed face of the dish. He wonders aloud if he should order a heater to keep ice from forming on the dish—but the wind would still be a concern.

After briefly contemplating alternative locations—there are none—Moussa decides to order a sheet of Plexiglasï»' from Montreal to prop up between the dish and the train tracks. Then, using a satellite finder, he identifies where in the sky the satellite must be and adjusts the dish’s position accordingly. After a few more hours of tinkering, the Internet connection is up, and the following day Moussa gets the VoIP telephones operating, too.

Then, he goes fishing.

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