Pacific Nations on the crest of an Internet wave
Wellington recently had one of the worst storms in recent memory. The 200 kilometres an hour winds caused damage to both personal as well as public infrastructure. Luckily my family and I were out of the region at the time and it was only when we returned three days later that I encountered a technological wasteland in my neighbourhood. The power that supplied my local exchange cabinet had been down for three days and my neighbours each had different stories about how this Internet outage had affected their everyday lives.
Rarely these days do we stop and think how much our lives have changed due to ever-present access to the Internet. We don’t think twice about whipping out our smart phone to look up an interesting topic on Wikipedia. We don’t give a second thought to being able to Skype loved ones half way around the world. If we’ve missed a favourite TV show, we can catch-up through one of many Internet based video-on-demand services. Some of us get a small taste of what being without Internet is like when we travel on a long haul plane, but with new advances in technology, soon even this oasis of Internet calm will be invaded. It is only during something like a natural disaster, when our Internet safety line has been cut, that we truly realise how much it has come to be an omnipresent part of our everyday lives and how much we crave it when it is gone.
With all that in mind, it was an eye opening experience to find myself, less than a week later, in a country where the sort of ubiquitous access to the Internet that we enjoy seems like a distant dream
Fellow Network Start-up Resource Centre (NSRC) trainer, Jon Brewer, and I landed in Tonga as invited trainers to deliver workshops at the 13th Pacific Network Operators Group (PacNOG) meeting. Normally when the NSRC team lands in a new country, one of the first things we look to do after collecting luggage is to find a local SIM card so we can get ‘back online’ as soon as possible. This helps with everything from ensuring there are no last minute emails changing the conference timetable, to being able to use Google Maps to find our way to the hotel. In Tonga however this sort of ubiquitous access to the Internet is not yet commonplace. All that is about to change however with a number of new opportunities, and we were there to help the workshop participants from 10 Pacific Island nations learn how to take advantage of these opportunities.
The first of the opportunities is the provisioning of a number of new submarine fibre optic cable systems throughout the pacific. While the newly announced Hawaiki cable system primarily looks to join Australia and New Zealand to Hawaii and the US, it will provision side links along the way to provide connectivity to islands in its path. While this new cable is not due to come online until the later part of 2015, the date of the commissioning of Tonga's very first submarine fibre optic cable is much closer.
For the last year, the Tonga Cable Limited has been working with partners such as the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank and Tonga Communications Corporation to deploy the kingdom's first submarine fibre link. A quote from project contributor, LandCare Research New Zealand’s website sums up how ambitious this project was at its inception.
“This project intends to lay a submarine fibre-optic cable from the western arm of the Southern Cross network, across 800 km of ecologically sensitive, and seismically, volcanically and tectonically active seabed, to Tonga. “
In spite of all that piled against them, the cable now lays complete and is due to be commissioned in August 2013. This new cable terminates in Fiji and will then connect Tonga to the same Southern Cross network cable that joins New Zealand to Australia and the United States. It will provide Tonga with an Internet connection that allows for a whole new class of services. Video conferencing via technologies like Skype or Google Hangouts, which were all but unusable over a satellite link, now become a reality. Censuses taken in 2006 show that while there are 101,991 people on the island of Tonga another 68% of Tongans live in Australia and New Zealand (178,426 and 50,478 respectively). With an expat population that significant, it is easy to appreciate how important the ability to communicate with one's family members overseas is.
Another technological improvement set to change the lives of people in the pacific is the wide scale deployment of high-speed mobile networks.
In Nuku’alofa, Tonga’s capital, finding mobile data proved to be a difficult endeavour. While there are a number of mobile carriers on the island kingdom, none offered 3G data services on their network. Most are however looking to deploy these networks in the near future, which is an important advancement in providing Internet access to the Tonga population.
Everything that Tonga residents have come to know about the Internet is about to change with these two technologies arriving at the same time.
They will be able to not only have Internet available wherever on the island they happen to be, for the first time they will also be able to deliver high bandwidth content from Tonga to the rest of the Internet, an activity that the existing satellite link makes prohibitively slow.
As mentioned earlier, Tongans in country and abroad will be able to communicate live never before. There is even talk of these technologies being used to create jobs such as Tonga based global call centres.
These benefits, however, will only be achieved and attained, if the Internet engineers within the country have the skills to deploy the technologies to the end users. This is the reason why events like the recent PacNOG workshop are so important. They ensure that operators from all the Pacific Islands are capable of receiving the training they need to take these opportunities and turn them into the real life changes that their country’s citizens require. The participants at the recent workshop in Tonga spent the week learning topics from NSRC and APNIC trainers topics such as advanced routing, deploying Internet Exchange Points, configuring web servers and Linux system administration. These are all technologies that will allow the delivery of new Internet services to end customers throughout the pacific region. It is through witnessing first hand the difference that forums like this make within the Pacific community that has seen NSRC provide support and training resources at all the thirteen PacNOG workshops.
The Kingdom of Tonga is commonly known as the Friendly Islands, and that was certainly our experience. I'm convinced that the arrival of the Internet into the hands of the population will only serves to enhance this friendliness, through new avenues for collaboration, outreach, and sharing of information. We hope and believe that the recent PacNOG workshop helped them on the way!
Dean Pemberton is an InternetNZ Fellow, and an ICT consultant who specialises in assisting organisations make strategic decisions on the adoption of emerging network technologies.