International connectivity for small island states

Posted on April 9, 2014  /  3 Comments

I write this sitting in Vanuatu at the Pacific Islands Telecom Association (PITA) annual convention. These are exciting times for the Pacific (and possibly all small island states) in terms of the opening up of new options re international data connectivity.

They are a few months into the new age of fiber connectivity. This is perhaps the smallest country to invest in a fiber cable (Fiji-Tonga). Population is 103,036. The numbers are not exact but the cable is operated by an entity with government stakes (20% or so) with the rest of the investment coming from World Bank and ADB. I am told capacity has increased eight fold. There are two access network operators. One is Digicel, operating as a regional entity.

Population is around 250,000. Their Fiji-Vanuatu cable cut over just a few months ago. Interchange is the cable operator who made the full investment. No public funding. They are planning Phase 2, to connect Solomons and then PNG. Two access operators, Digicel and Vanuatu Telecom Limited (owned by Mauritius Tel). Too early to tell effect on retail prices use, etc. But it looks like many hotels have begun to offer free WiFi to guests, departing from previous high-charge regime. Offshore Financial Center could be one reason for commercial viability. Also, it appears some French BPO business may come here from Mauritius.

Cook Islands
First to deploy services based on O3B, a low-latency medium orbit satellite. Population was 14,974 in 2011; appears they may more tourists than residents at some times. The access network operator reports latencies in 122-150 ms range. No public funds involved. Operational for 4-5 months.

Usually, improvements in international backhaul take 2-3 years to filter into benefits to consumers. But things seem to be moving fast in these countries.


  1. Thanks a lot Prof.,
    for this very usefull information about the state of connectivity to these lesser known islands. Hope this virus spreads further. Satya

  2. I was at the same meeting and island. I observed a different view of the situation and it is not as rosy as it is projected. Having a cable that may or may not be publicly funded (there is debate on this) that has limited access due to high appropriation costs and a somewhat schizophrenic costing/pricing system, where perhaps in some cases wholesale is priced higher than some public retail pricing available is perhaps a bit anti-competitive. Yes, the Fiber is HUGE to the community and there needs to be multiple sources but transparency on the situation also needs to be afforded. This is an early view on things, but I am wondering, if the public in Vanuatu did actually have any part in the investment of what I heard was an 18 million USD or so cable, why there are no services (dark fiber, strands, Lambdas, STMs, etc) reserved at a contiguous rate for competitive elements on the use of the cable, as in most PPP situations would require. I am sure there are reasons for all of this, however, perhaps some transparency could be afforded to help clear the air. If indeed the cable is privately owned entirely, then ownership can price accordingly to recover ROI (there is debate on whether any value is obtained by keeping the price high so only a few can afford to use it at wholesale levels) but if it received any public landing rights assistance, some sort of multi-stakeholder environment should of been sustained, for prices of 350to 650 USD per 1MB were being thrown around on the island in my research and that is just sheerly disastrous for growth, when this cable is supposed to be a catalyst for Broadband. Remember, Broadband is a huge instigator for GDP growth and at these prices, nothing is going to happen. Free wifi is not the compelling indicator of success either. Business investment and growth in consumer services for islanders is the key and it is based on the wholesale/retail market price available for Broadband services. Tourists can afford the internet and for the record, most that go to Vanuatu are not going there to check their mail, they are wanting to get as far away from the Internet as possible. Island government and business need this facility badly, so they are not beholden to limited satellite interests. Market penetration of the use of the Fiber cable system into Vanuatu is absolutely a must. Wifi for free in the hotels, as it was in the Grand is NOT the measurement when hotel fees cover the costs. Costs per GB must depreciate, even though most were talking in terms of sub 1MB till just recently. This cable is only the start…….and it is a non starter if the pricing/access eliminates any and all competition from increasing volume of use on the cable and decreasing pricing. The jury is still out of course for the details are still aggregating, but the people of the South Pacific certainly deserve to be treated adequately with regard to their right to Broadband. The Telcos and Service Providers have huge opportunity here and I hope they are not shortsighted in their vision long term.

  3. Bjørn Haagensen, Antenna & RF Consultant at Ocean Wireless Data Systems Inc. in Halifax, Canada, has commented on this post in LinkedIn Submarine Cable Group discussion:

    The introduction of fibre to these island nations is a huge step toward expanding their economies and improving the quality of life for their citizens. It’s gratifying to see fiber being deployed in preference to satellite, because the reliability during heavy rain fall – especially with Ka band systems – is a serious problem for which practical solutions have not yet been identified.

    Little or nothing is being done for the outlying islands, however. For example, Federated States of Micronesia has 607 islands, of which 65 are inhabited. About 60 of those have no communications, other than sporadic HF-SSB radios because the population base is too small to justify a satellite terminal.

    The National Research Council of Canada has been funding development of a surface-wave communications radio system which will typically support about 6 telephone channels with crystal clear, toll-quality voice. A single radio link will cover about 400 – 500 km. The range can be extended indefinitely by using intermediate islands as repeaters. At the repeaters, some channels can be dropped off for local use, and others can be repeatered through and ultimately connect to international circuits.

    The core technology is based on commercialization of MIL-STD-188-110B data formats. The equipment can be modified for the recently-released MIL-STD-188-110C Appendix D, which would allow up to approximately 30 telephone channels.

    A demonstration system is going to be set up off the coast of Nova Scotia, Canada later this summer. The system – currently called “Aquarius” – will be used as a test bed to evaluate capabilities and reliability.

    Aquarius is immune to severe weather and ionospheric disturbances. There are no “air time” costs and the most significant operating expense may be the power needed to run the radio.