Calls for Pacific to join up on internet access

Copyright: Chris Stowers / Panos

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  • Observers say the Pacific islands must have more options for broadband access
  • New satellites and plans for balloon internet are a step in the right direction
  • But plans must be made at regional level, and weather-proof options rolled out

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A number of organisations are pushing to solve the problems that Pacific island nations have in connecting to the internet, as a fresh set of satellites are sent into orbit to bolster high-speed broadband in remote areas.
But while several companies are seeking new ways to improve Pacific connectivity, some campaigners are emphasising the need for the continued roll-out of down-to-earth solutions, as well as calling for a regional approach to planning affordable connectivity.
O3b Networks, a satellite communications provider based in Europe and partly backed by Google, launched four satellites this month (10 July), after debuting its first commercial service with Telecom Cook Islands in March.
Singapore-based broadband satellite provider Kacific Broadband Satellite plans to launch a Pacific-oriented satellite in early 2017, and Google’s Project Loon is investigating balloon-powered internet, after launching a pilot in New Zealand in June 2013. Project Loon aims eventually to establish a ring of uninterrupted connectivity around the 40th southern parallel, an area in the Southern hemisphere that crosses the Atlantic Ocean, the Indian Ocean, Australasia, the Pacific Ocean and South America.

“The new wave of satellites is fascinating and these moves are very exciting.”

Christopher Sampson, Digital Society Foundation

“With support from local governments and global institutions, Kacific has the capacity to foster greater internet usage throughout the Pacific, fuelling economic growth,” says Christian Patouraux, the company’s CEO.
Christopher Sampson, founder and board member at the Digital Society Foundation, says that these are positive moves in the absence of other connectivity options, but are not enough alone.
“The new wave of satellites is fascinating and these moves are very exciting,” says Sampson.
But he adds that they need to be supplemented by fibre-optic cables: “In the digital age, fibre-optic cable is the motorway.”

A regional issue

Sampson says that a coordinated Pacific “masterplan” is needed to enable small and remote nations to take charge of their ICT (information and communications technology) needs, and secure affordable and robust connectivity.
“With a more coordinated planning approach at the regional level, we can better identify the gaps where national policies and funding abilities need to be supplemented, and we can better design the network ‘mesh’ for resilience, performance, value for money and extent of coverage,” says Sampson.
He is lobbying hard for regional bodies, such as the Pacific Islands Forum, to recognise this, pointing out that other continents plan joint networks and to share costs.
Affordable broadband-speed internet was not a focus in the recent review of the Pacific Plan. This was disappointing for Sampson, who says it should be a “key foundation” for future activities.
But he says he has received subsequent positive signals from the Pacific Islands Forum that ICT could be a “big-ticket item” under the new Framework for Pacific Regionalism which leaders are due to discuss at the end of this month.
Seini O’Connor, Pacific Plan advisor for the Pacific Islands Forum Secretariat, says that strengthening regional connectivity is expected to be “one of the first big areas considered by leaders following the framework processes”.
“We expect that many and diverse stakeholders will need to come together to finance, implement and facilitate the social roll-out of these new technologies that are so essential for connecting our region,” she adds.
Sampson says: “I would like to encourage donor governments, including the UK, French, EU, US and Australian governments, to review their aid policies to prioritise support for assisting the region to put affordable broadband-speed internet access in place for all communities. I think this is one of the most effective ways that the region can move towards self-sufficiency and a sustainable future, and out of the cycle of aid dependency.”
He says that not including Pacific islands in the digital economy will cause their communities to “break down”.
Maureen Hilyard, board chair of the Pacific Islands Chapter of the Internet Society, says that, in her home nation of the Cook Islands, “because of our isolation, the internet is our future for a range of reasons, including education and health-related opportunities, as well as for our country’s economic development”.

Weathering the costs

But Hilyard says that, though she can “personally attest” to an improvement in broadband since O3b’s service came to the Cook Islands, “the cost is still too high for a developing country where the average wage for locals is NZ$15,000 [about US$13,000]”.
Apart from cost, the weather may also interfere with satellite-based internet.
In January 2014 researchers from Fiji National University reported in the South Pacific Journal of Natural and Applied Sciences that heavy cloud cover and rain in tropical regions can degrade satellite links.
“Weather conditions are always going to be an issue,” says Hilyard. “In times of climatically adverse conditions like cyclones and storms, an alternative to satellite has to be an option.”
And alternatives are coming. The New Zealand-registered company Hawaiki Cable is rolling out a 14,000-kilometre submarine cable to provide trans-Pacific connectivity between Australia, New Zealand and the United States that is planned to go live in early 2016. As a second cable it promises to “further market competitiveness, which will result in improved costs and quality of service for all customers within the market”.
The World Bank and the Asian Development Bank are also working together to establish an underwater fibre optic cable connecting Fiji and Tonga.
However, Sampson says that bureaucracy can cause delays or cancellations to projects.
Link to full study in The South Pacific Journal of Natural and Applied Sciences