The Coming Change

[Originally published in the Vanuatu Independent newspaper.]

“Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.”Leo Tolstoy

On Wednesday this week at a quiet ceremony in Chantilly’s Resort, Minister Rialuth Serge Vohor presented six organisations with telecommunications operator licenses. His action marked the beginning of a new chapter in Vanuatu’s integration into the wider technological world.

The Minister’s speech touched on many aspects of the technical and social challenge ahead of us, but its illuminating principle was his lifelong conviction that Vanuatu should control its own destiny. Acknowledging and applauding the invaluable assistance provided by numerous donor and commercial partners from overseas, he nonetheless displayed great satisfaction at seeing local operations moving into the spotlight.

There was an air of quiet excitement in the room as, after patient months of waiting, representatives from the six groups, along with Digicel Vanuatu CEO Tanya Menzies, strode to the front of the room to accept the newly signed documents.

At the risk of sounding like a giddy shoolchild, I wonder if everyone realises just how fundamentally this moment is going to affect our generation and the next.

We’ve had Internet services in Vanuatu for some time now and TVL has consistently worked to improve it. When I arrived here in 2003, an unlimited dial-up account cost 25,000 vatu per month. Today, a dedicated broadband line with roughly 3 times the capacity is available at about 20% of the price.

In 2003, it was possible – in theory at least – to connect from any telephone line. But that did mean being near a telephone line, and contending with all the other voice traffic coming and going. In practice, using the Internet regularly for anything but the most basic purposes in the islands was a challenge, to say the least. Today, we have broadband service in Vila and Santo (and soon in Tanna). And even if you’re not near a phone line, you can use TVL’s WiMax or Digicel’s GPRS service.

The pattern we’re seeing in Internet closely echoes what we saw in the months before Digicel rolled out its mobile telephone service, with a few critical differences. Prices have dropped, coverage and capacity have improved. If anything, TVL’s been even more aggressive this time in improving its core infrastructure, expanding its coverage area and reducing prices. It has clearly become a much more agile organisation than it once was. Consumers nationwide can only benefit from the result.

This time around, it’s Digicel that runs the risk (albeit a slight one) of being the one caught on the hop. On the same day the six new licenses were awarded, Digicel also received an amended license – essentially giving it the right to compete in all segments of the telecoms market.

I spoke with CEO Tanya Menzies about what Digicel’s plans regarding Internet services. When asked about becoming a full-service ISP, She said they were in the process of developing their business plan and didn’t want to make any firm pronouncements at that moment. She did, however, draw my attention to a recent contract between Digicel and Huawei to provide roaming wireless broadband in 5 Caribbean nations.

It’s no accident that Digicel’s new CTO is a wireless Internet veteran with a long list of large-scale network roll-outs to his credit. “That’s why we brought him here,” said Menzies, smiling.

I suspect, though, that most people’s first contact with the Internet here will be through smaller local commercial and community-based operations. Telsat Pacific has ambitious plans to push Internet service as widely as they can using a mix of small satellite dishes and wireless technology. Yumi Konek, an NGO-driven project designed to provide access to email to Vanuatu’s remotest areas, is already providing services in Aneityum and the Banks islands. The Pentecost community of Pangi and Malekula’s Southwest Bay are next.

No matter how you slice it, Internet will remain relatively expensive for some years to come. In addition to that, taking full advantage of the Internet involves a good deal more capital – both intellectual and technical – than using a mobile phone. So, for the majority in Vanuatu, the face of technology will be the neighbourhood geek who keeps the equipment chugging along.

My guess is that the biggest winners among our current heavy hitters will be those who push the support role closer to the customer by offering wholesale services to ‘Mom and Pop’ businesses operating in neighbourhoods throughout Vanuatu.

Pent-up demand for learning, for a glimpse of the outside world, is far greater than many people realise. If people in a remote village in South Malekula will clear a mountain hillside just to speak with their families, what lengths won’t others go to in order to explore the world? More importantly, what would parents not give to allow their children to do so?

The expansion of Internet use is not likely to follow the rocket-like trajectory of mobile services, but it will hit quickly and run deep. Too deep for some, I fear. Having lived on the bleeding and the trailing edge of technology (sometimes both at once), I find the contrast between the two is enough to cause a kind of cognitive whiplash.

Heaven alone knows what will happen when it reaches the village.

Most people fear the obvious: pornography, graphic violence and other morally dubious fare. I think they’re missing the point. The really disruptive influences are the social ones.

What will happen to society when we chat more with people on other continents than the ones sitting right beside us?

What will happen to families when their members start to see what else they could belong to?

The societies where Internet runs deepest bear the least resemblance to the country we live in today.

The Vanuatu we know is about to change utterly. The only question now is: What do we want Vanuatu to become, and what are we willing to do – now, today – to achieve that?