Open Season

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

With the recent passage of a new telecommunications Act (awkwardly titled the TELECOMMUNICATIONS AND RADIOCOMMUNICATION REGULATION ACT), Vanuatu has taken another important step in ensuring continued success in building openness and fairness into the business of communications.

Parts of the Act, currently awaiting the President’s signature, validate and give force of law to terms and conditions already included in the licenses issued to our two incumbent telcos. It also provides an overall framework for continued growth, expansion and innovation. Most importantly, it makes permanent the office of the Telecommunications Regulator.

(Before I go on, I should make it clear that the text of the Bill was under discussion until shortly before it was voted on. The version I was able to view was not the official text. That will only become available once the Clerk of Parliament receives the signed Act from the President. That said, I’m pretty confident that those parts of the Act discussed here are unchanged.)

Perhaps the most notable aspect of this new legislation is the delegation of the right to issue telecoms licenses to the Regulator. Until the Act takes effect, this power is retained by the Minister.

John Crook, the Interim Telecommunications Regulator, has made it clear that he wants to see the process of obtaining what’s termed a Telecommunications Operator License to be as simple and direct as possible. All that should be required to start a new Internet Service Provider is to demonstrate that you have the right to operate such a business in Vanuatu, that you have the means to do so and that you’re willing to play by the rules.

We’ll likely see some reasonable limits put on this process. Contractual obligations limit the mobile telephone market to Digicel and TVL for a more years, and it’s likely that any large-scale enterprise (someone wanting to build out another national communications network, for example) would require approval by the Council of Ministers.

But, for those local businesses who’ve been waiting patiently for their ISP licenses to be approved, these are glad tidings. Approval could conceivably come within days or weeks.

Rod Smith, owner of Telsat Pacific, is excited at the prospect. One of six applicants, he’s been champing at the bit for months now, waiting for his application to be approved. Telsat intends to provide Internet services throughout Vanuatu, using a mix of satellite and wireless technologies. As the long-time provider of satellite television services, Smith feels comfortable that he can reach most anywhere with his service.

Smith described an ambitous plan to provide residential, business and roaming Internet services. His business model includes a single-sign-on service. Pay once for your Internet, and you can log in anywhere Telsat service is offered at no additional charge. Entry-level packages will start at bandwidths similar to those currently offered by TVL.

Asked how long it would take for him to be ready once his license is approved, Smith half-quipped, “I’ll have everything turned on by afternoon the next day.

Others are just as sanguine, planning to offer wireless and other services throughout the municipal areas. It’s not clear how much price movement we’ll see in the short term. Satellite Internet is inherently expensive. While we might see more affordable packages than are currently available, they will likely be fairly modest in terms of what you can do with them.

When I discussed their mobile Internet service with Crevan Murphy, CTO at Digicel Vanuatu, he denied any interest in using GPRS to provide traditional ISP-style services. That said, an amended license agreement is currently awaiting approval. Time will tell what it contains.

TVL did not respond to recent questions concerning their future plans, beyond noting the wholesale improvements they’ve been undertaking across their entire infrastructure. Earlier briefings on their plan to extend broadband DSL service further into Port Vila’s neighbourhoods and to Tanna and elsewhere indicate that they intend to compete just as aggressively in the ISP market as they have in mobile services.

Local scuttlebutt has it that they’re currently upgrading their telephone switching equipment to support Internet protocols, too. So we might be seeing new services announced sooner than later.

With all this growth and excitement in the air, it’s comforting to know that the process will be overseen by a seasoned and able Regulator. Interim Regulator John Crook presided over some of the more contentious moments during the lead-up to the opening of the mobile market, and it’s understood that he will stay on for at least another year.

Equally important, he can finally start building out a permanent staff. Regulating telecommunications is a difficult game – there’s no small amount of geekery involved, but it’s intermixed with business, social and political considerations as well.

The new Telecoms Act takes solid steps to ensure that the office doesn’t become another VCMB, de-politicising the Regulator’s role and putting measures in place to ensure its neutrality.

Donors have suggested that in order to keep apace with technological issues, it might be desirable to create a regional ‘pool’ of technical expertise, shared between Pacific Island nations. That’s all well and good, but Vanuatu needs to invest in its own people as well.

While a solid grasp of technology is critical to managing this important national resource, it’s not sufficient in and of itself. If we want to do this right, we’ll need more than a few experienced and savvy ni-Vanuatu in the Regulator’s office and in other critical areas when these new communications services begin to make their impact felt on Vanuatu society.

When this Act becomes law, we can expect to see the same kind of radical transformation in the Internet market as we witnessed a little over a year ago with mobile services.

For most people in Vanuatu, this will be their first encounter with the Internet, a resource whose impact, potentially, will be even greater than mobile telephone revolution we’ve just been through.