Rural Internet Comes to Vanuatu

[This week’s Communications column for the Vanuatu Independent.]

This week, Ian Thomson, project coordinator for the SPC’s Pacific RICS project, came to town with some eye-catching gifts in hand.

Pacific RICS, which stands for Rural Internet Connectivity System, is the result of the Pacific Islands Forum’s Digital Strategy, itself part of the Pacific Plan. The AusAID-funded project offers Pacific Island nations access to dedicated satellite communication services using simple, easy to install and inexpensive equipment. This project is designed to dovetail with the Oceania One Laptop Per Child initiative, which aims to ensure that all children in the region get their own low-cost, durable laptop.

During a public presentation on Tuesday, attended by Ministers Edward Nipake Natapei and Joe Natuman, Santo MP Sela Molisa and many others, Thomson outlined how combining affordable Internet access and invaluable learning tools like the OLPC’s XO laptop could revolutionise life in rural areas of Vanuatu.

A sample satellite system was set up in a single afternoon at Club Vanuatu, and Minister Natapei demonstrated how easy it was to use it to connect to the Internet.

Expressing his excitement about the projects, Thomson said, ‘I feel like Father Christmas! I get to give out laptops to children – who could say no to a job like that? Not only will it help them learn, but it will also help all community members to engage with Internet technology and get connected to the global network.’

Championed by Jimmy Rodgers, the Director General of the SPC, the Pacific RICS project takes advantage of the fortuitous (for us, at least) abandonment of a satellite by Boeing a few years ago.

Boeing hatched a plan to offer Internet services to business travellers on lucrative trans-Pacific routes. In order to do so, they had to design a system that could reach them anywhere in the Pacific. The only reasonable way to do that was to use satellite technology. There weren’t any commercial systems covering this vast ‘Blue Continent’, so Boeing decided to build and launch their own. They designed the system so that it could use a satellite dish about half the size of competing offerings.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t quite small enough. They discovered that the additional drag added significantly to the amount of fuel required for the trip. The final nail in the coffin, though, was a survey that discovered that trans-Pacific business travellers didn’t really want the service. They were used to taking advantage of their enforced offline time to get some much-needed kip in order to remain productive on arrival.

When Boeing shelved the project, they found themselves in possession of an already-commissioned satellite with no viable customers. The coverage area, or footprint, of the satellite was squarely in the Pacific, one of the least populated – and least-visited – areas in the world. The US Armed Forces bought up ten of the twelve available transponders on the satellite, but two went asking.

When an astute satellite bandwidth provider based in Nouméa spotted this, he shopped an idea to Dr. Rodgers and his colleagues at the SPC. Why not buy out the remaining transponders, and use them to set up a non-profit satellite Internet system geared entirely toward community development and education? Rodgers, a long-time champion of communications technology, presented the idea to the Forum leadership, who enthusiastically agreed. AusAID consequently paid about two million dollars in order to lease the bandwidth outright for a two-year period.

This system offers a number of advantages over competing satellite Internet solutions. Installation costs about half as much as the next-best offering in Vanuatu right now, mostly because it uses a much smaller dish. We have Boeing’s engineers to thank for that windfall. The need to fit a dish on a plane gave us this much cheaper form factor.

Usage costs a lot less too. The project bought out all the space on the two remaining transponders at special rates, so Pacific nations have many, many megabits of space available to share amongst themselves, and there’s no limit to how much they use.

Not all local satellite providers offer unlimited use on their services. Metered bandwith offerings seem cheaper at first, because the base rates are lower. But the more you use the service, the more you pay. That effectively encourages people to not to share their service, for fear that others will hog the bandwidth. Conversely, even relatively expensive flat-rate services encourage people to make the best possible use of their service, because the more they share it, the less it costs per user.

Pacific RICS is managed by Pacific Islanders for Pacific Islanders. This is an important advantage. In 2005, when the Intelsat 804 satellite failed, technicians throughout the Pacific frantically contended with larger customers in Asia and Australia for space on other satellites. Vanuatu alone was bumped at least three times by a provider that considered the needs of a tiny customer secondary to larger business clients elsewhere in the world. The fact that this left our entire nation incommunicado for days was of no import to them.

Of course, Internet access is pointless in rural areas unless we have the means to access it. I’ve written many times before about the One Laptop Per Child project and its XO computer. I tested a late prototype of the device for over a month here in Vanuatu, and found it to be the first computer that adequately met the requirements for use in Vanuatu’s villages. It costs about 80% less than most laptops, it can survive being dropped in a puddle, four of them can run on the same amount of power required to light an average-sized fluorescent tube and it’s got a screen that you can use even in direct sunlight.

Most importantly, it’s designed top to bottom to be used by children for collaborative learning. Children can ‘share’ their activities using the built-in, zero-configuration wireless network. This means, for example, that children could sit down, each with at home with their own laptop, and use the music software to play virtual instruments together, simultaneously recording all the tracks onto a single computer.

That kind of capability was completely out of reach until this laptop came along.

Wan Smolbag Theatre took delivery of 25 XO laptops on Monday. They’ll be using them in their childhood literacy project, aimed at children in the Blacksand area whose parents can’t afford their school fees. The Ministry of Education is well-advanced in their plan to conduct a trial of the laptop in one or two Vanuatu schools. There’s no word yet on the timeline.

It bears noting that this is the first time in its history that the OLPC project has dealt directly with a civil society organisation. Vanuatu’s leadership in this regard could set an important precedent.

Leadership is what each one of these projects is about. Collaboration at every level, from the Pacific Forum on down, has derived unprecedented benefits to people throughout the Pacific. It is heartening to see that Vanuatu has been at the forefront of all these endeavours. It’s even more heartening to know that our leaders are not resting on their laurels. We’ve got momentum now; let’s continue to invest it.

3 thoughts on “Rural Internet Comes to Vanuatu

  1. Actually there were only 21 laptops delivered to WSB …unless some have already “gat leg”!

  2. This is very astute of the people who grabbed this chance, can you tell me what sort of band width is available ? And is international internet access available as well via the satellite? Thanks.

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