It’s the Internet Age, but Pacific Islands Struggle With Slow Speeds and Poor Connections

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PJ Heller / ZUMA PRESS / Corbis

The Talamahu Market in the capital city of Nuku’alofa on the island of Tongatapu, Dec. 2, 2010.

The opening line on the Kingdom of Tonga’s tourism website reads, “Welcome to life in the slow lane.” It could be the national motto. The Polynesian nation of 176 far-flung islands — but just 105,000 people — has a long tradition of sitting on the sidelines of world affairs. Alone among island nations of the Pacific, Tonga was never colonized by a foreign power, mostly because foreign powers saw no compelling reason to extend their empires some 3,000 km east of Australia. An unbroken succession of local chiefs and kings has ruled over the islands for more than a thousand years. But there are downsides to Tonga’s state of restful isolation.

“The Internet is very sporadic here, and the speed is quite slow,” says Minoru Nishi Jr., a local importer-exporter. Connection speeds on the island lag far behind world standards, a reality that sets in every time Nishi returns from a visit to China or Japan. “You get on the plane,” he says, “and go, oh no.” A single high-resolution picture can take six to seven hours to send as an attachment, assuming it sends at all. “Often what happens is it just cuts off,” Nishi says, forcing him to restart the process all over again. “We have to wait until the middle of the night, when there are no people on the Internet.”

He’s not alone in his frustration. A local telecom executive said he has a habit of making coffee after he hits a button to download a document. The Secretary for Information and Communications says friends stop him in the street to complain about dropped calls over Skype. In fact, across all the island nations of the Pacific, a combined population of around 10 million people is chafing against narrow bandwidths that most of the world left behind in the screechy-modem days of the early ’90s.

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The problem boils down to the Pacific Islands’ unique geography. “There’s no other place in the world as remote and as small and as fragmented,” says Franz Drees-Gross, the World Bank’s country director for the region. “Take Kiribati, a nation of 100,000 people. They’re on islands spread over a surface area equivalent to India, but if you were to collapse the islands into a single landmass, it would be the size of New Delhi.”

Telecom companies blanch at the cost of connecting these scattered islands to the rest of the world. In the age of the mobile device, it’s easy to forget the fact that the Internet — at least the high-speed variety that many of us take for granted — is a physical thing. It is zapped through undersea cables that span the world’s oceans, connecting continent to continent and landmass to landmass.

The first fiber-optic cables were laid down alongside telegraph cables from the mid-1800s. These bundles of glass wires as thin as a strand of hair are coated in a layer of resin or bands of steel to protect them from abrasions on the seafloor. The cables must wend their way around volcanic chasms and pick through delicate growths of coral reef before surfacing at a landing station, where Internet-service providers distribute bandwidth to customers.

Telecoms companies have gradually extended these cables to every populated area of the globe, with one notable exception: the fragmented populations of the Pacific Islands. There, the cost of building a cable dwarfs the revenue that could be collected from such a tiny base of subscribers. The investment may take decades to pay off, if ever. So the telecoms industry has understandably bypassed the region, leaving islanders to grapple with costly satellite connections that can rack up bills as high as $500 a month.

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The wait may finally be over for the Tongans, at least, now that the World Bank, the Asian Development Bank, and the local government have invested $33.5 million in a fiber-optic cable for the Internet-starved kingdom. Such cables can work wonders for agricultural economies like Tonga’s. Nishi, for example, is an agricultural exporter who disseminates advice and equipment to 70 local farmers on the main island. Every two weeks the farmers make costly, hour-long treks down muddy roads to attend training sessions in town when they could just as easily watch the sessions from a home computer. And suppose the farmers find a mysterious pest hiding under a leaf. Rather than wait two weeks to raise the issue at the next training session, they could snap a photo, e-mail it to an agricultural expert abroad and receive instant advice on how to prevent it from spreading across the island.

One study by the World Bank found that every 10% increase in a population’s broadband access adds 1.4% to economic growth. “The impact of having broadband connections is actually much stronger than having cell-phone participation,” says Drees-Gross, which is why the World Bank has made broadband penetration one of its key measures of economic development.

Tonga’s Information Secretary, Paula P. Ma’u, envisions a white-collar revolution. He says an accounting firm in New Zealand has already approached him with the idea of opening an office in Tonga and hiring local accountants at lower wages. “If it could establish an office here, and transfer data to New Zealand to be processed, they could save substantial amounts,” he says.

On June 11, a cable ship pulled toward the shore of Tongatapu, Tonga’s main island, towing behind it an 827-km cable from a landing station in Fiji, the nearest island with broadband service. Tongans celebrated its arrival with a town-hall style ceremony in which a Skype call was projected on a giant screen (tens of thousands of Tongans live abroad, mostly in New Zealand, so Skype video conferences have a special emotional resonance to the islanders). Executives expect the broadband connection to go live in August.

“All the people and businesses in Tonga are all welcoming this and are so looking forward to this,” says Nishi. He notes that it coincides with another upheaval to Tonga’s easy-going lifestyle: a proposal to raise the speed limit from 40 km/h to 50 km/h. Looks like Tonga could be moving into the fast lane after all.

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