A Matter of Trust

“We are inclined to believe those whom we do not know, because they have never deceived us.” These words belong to Samuel Johnson, a wise man indeed. St. Augustine looked at things from the other side and famously observed, “Familiarity breeds contempt.”

We in Vanuatu have a distinct advantage over our neighbours in other countries. Our community is small enough that we can really get to know the movers and shakers in our society. It may take us time to become familiar with them, but if we have a mind to, we can learn the quirks and the capabilities of most of the people and organisations who can influence Vanuatu’s course and its future.

Familiarity with the state of communications in Vanuatu has bred a great deal of contempt. We all have reason to feel that way. Communication is a public trust, tied very closely to free speech and freedom of movement, both of which are enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It’s improved tremendously in recent years, but there’s still a vast amount of work to be done, especially in the islands.

The government of Vanuatu has demonstrated its determination to improve the situation. The Ministry of Infrastructure and Public Utilities has published a draft Telecommunications Policy that embraces a liberalised communications market in which increased competition will be used to improve communications nation-wide. Our leaders have requested the assistance of the World Bank, Australia, China, TVL and others in order to achieve this. Before the year is out, we can expect to see the beginnings of real, revolutionary change.

Can we trust our leaders to deliver on their promises? In this particular case, the answer appears to be yes. They’ve demonstrated a good deal of consistency where telecommunications policy is concerned. Funds have been obtained and resources allocated to the task. While the schedule has slipped somewhat of late, all indications are that the process is continuing in the right direction.

But our familiarity with the vagaries of the players in this process should lead us to show a healthy degree of caution. Donors are sometimes more concerned with market access and their own strategic interests than in the plight of the average villager in the islands. Private sector players must necessarily consider the bottom line before anything else. Government policy has to accommodate these criteria while at the same time trying to safeguard the fundamental principles driving this work.

They’re in a tough position. It has to be admitted that providing telephone and Internet services to the islands is a losing proposition, at least as far as big business is concerned. Vanuatu’s mountainous, thinly populated islands just don’t fit nicely with the standard approaches to telecoms service deployment. But adequate communications are critical to our nation’s health.

Good communications could mean that our children are better educated, our sick and injured are better treated, our small business people are more effective and our families are more closely tied. With inevitable tensions arising between life in town and in the village, our success in keeping Vanuatu culture intact and alive will be determined to a large degree by our ability to talk to one another. Given the difficulties we face with regards to transportation, adequate communications are even more important here than in other countries.

Our intimate familiarity with TVL, its strengths and its weaknesses has led some to conclude that anything at all is better than what we’ve got. A great many people have expressed their joy at the prospect of introducing new players into the market, no matter who they are. But
let’s not forget Dr. Johnson’s quotation that started this column. We need to be realistic about our new friends. We need to accept that they’ll have their own foibles, that their interests won’t always coincide perfectly with our own.

And while we’re at it, let’s accept that some of our contempt for TVL is unmerited, born of familiarity more than anything else. Managing a communications network in this country is remarkably difficult. Anyone who’s worked in the islands knows that there are a million things that can go wrong, causing delays of weeks and months, sometimes even years.

To summarise quickly: Improved communications is one of the keys to achieving every one of Vanuatu’s development priorities. Our government leaders have shown that they’re committed to a more liberalised market. Donors and corporate partners have been enlisted to the cause. TVL has agreed to negotiate a cooperative transition. Work is already under way. So what remains, then?

Two things will almost certainly happen in the wake of network roll-outs by the new telecom companies planning to set up shop here:

1.The coverage area will increase, but not nearly as much as people hope.

2.Service interruptions will be continue to be frequent, sometimes severe.

The simple fact is that there is no way to rationalise a truly national communications infrastructure using current corporate profit models. It’s just not going to happen. Couple that with the logistics of running electronic equipment in a hurricane-prone section of the Ring of Fire, add a constant stream of land disputes and nothing short of a miracle will keep a national communications grid working at anywhere near carrier grade.

The answer is to push the problem downward. Keep slicing the service thinner, and sell it in the smallest possible increments. A small business operator living in the village would be perfectly happy to keep a solar panel wiped clean and a wifi antenna attached to a bamboo pole
if he can earn the 10-20,000 vatu a month for his pains.

Micro-businesses like this are the only commercial mechanism that have a hope of handling the Melanesian Last Mile which, of course, is jungle, both literally and metaphorically. It’s therefore critical that we insist that people be able to re-sell any communications service without being forced to pay additional fees or to endure a licensing or qualification process that would put ni-Vanuatu at a natural disadvantage.

On a social level, we need to accept that Vanuatu culture will be challenged by this. Historically, its isolation has had a preserving effect, but this isolation will inevitably be diminished. The Internet exposes every aspect of human nature. It brings out the worst in us, as well as the very best. If we are going to keep our cultural heritage intact, we need to ensure that the word of our chiefs, our bubus and our leaders reaches us as clearly as the latest news of Beyonce Knowles.

And who shall we trust to achieve all this, if not ourselves?