Fibre Optics

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

Last weekend’s announcement by Minister Rialuth Serge Vohor of an agreement to participate in the SPIN fibre-optic project had been met with cautious optimism from observers. While nobody doubts the desirability of having an undersea cable linking Vanuatu to the rest of the world, some questions remain.

The devil, as always, is in the details.

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Planners and Searchers

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

Fifty years ago, Charles E. Lindblom, a professor at Yale University published an essay entitled ‘The Science of “Muddling Through”.’ The paper’s main point was stated briefly and simply: We can’t know everything about anything. So, as long as we’re just muddling through an imperfect world with only imperfect knowledge, we’d just as soon admit it.

At the heart of Lindblom’s rationale is the contention that even if we could know everything, we’d never be able to adequately express the value of competing development priorities. Therefore, we should work within our limitations, reduce the scope of our planning activities and allow competing interests to adjust to each other over time.

In a column marking the 50th anniversary of this seminal essay, Financial Times columnist John Kay remarks that, while contemporary economists may have scoffed at what they considered to be an unscientific and benighted approach to policy and planning, Lindblom’s gradualist approach has largely been vindicated.

Kay’s take on gradualism is filtered through the eyes of a businessman. Noted development economist William Easterly, however, celebrates Lindblom’s work as the only really workable model for developing countries.

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Two If By Sea…

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

This week, I’m going to channel the spirit Paul Revere and try to determine where the next invasion is coming from.

The invasion, of course, is the Internet, and the question is: Will we use satellite-based services to meet our needs, or an international fibre-optic cable link, or both?

First, I need to make something clear. Last week’s column looked at the fundamental issues behind financing a fibre-optic cable link to the outside world. It appears to have come across as pessimistic to some because it laid out some considerable challenges and risks.

My contention was never that fibre is a bad option. On the contrary. There are risks inherent to all projects on such a scale and I wanted to make them clear. But my point was only that the traditional role of government as underwriter or guarantor of major infrastructure projects is beyond Vanuatu’s capabilities. There’s nothing stopping us from finding other backers, though.

Last week at an ITU-sponsored conference for Pacific ministers, the World Bank presented a report on the feasibility of fibre-optic cable links throughout the region. The picture it paints is of a timely and fundamentally important opportunity for island nations, and for Vanuatu in particular.

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