Next Generation Internet in the Pacific

[Originally published in the Vanuatu Daily Post.]

PM Edward Natapei Nipake addresses the PacINET 2010 conferenceVanuatu welcomed over 140 attendees from Vanuatu and throughout the Asia-Pacific region this week to the annual PacINET technology conference. It was organised by the Pacific Islands Chapter of the Internet Society (PICISOC) and by the Vanuatu IT Users Society (VITUS).

At Wednesday’s opening ceremony, Prime Minister Edward Nipake Natapei highlighted Vanuatu’s leadership role in driving technological development in the country.

The effects,” he said, “have been revolutionary. As a result of our telecommunications policies, economic activity has increased, adding an additional 1% to GDP growth at a time when the world economy was shrinking. Studies show that social bonds are strengthened, too, making families safer and stronger in a time of increased mobility and migration.

The theme of this year’s conference is ‘Next Generation Internet: Security and Governance’. Among the highlights were deployment through the Pacific region of a new Internet protocol that will allow Internet-based businesses and organisations to continue to grow, a day-long investigation of the One Laptop Per Child project and another all-day workshop aimed at school principals – key stakeholders in ICT for development in Vanuatu.

Backing all these efforts is something people in Vanuatu understand better than most in the world – a thriving Pacific ICT community willing to share knowledge, experience and insight to make life better, not just for IT geeks, but for everyone.

Without the efforts of a devoted band of volunteers, the success of information and communications technologies (ICT) as tools for development would be severely limited. While the developed world has benefited significantly from entrepreneurialism and business development to drive technological advancement, the soul of the Pacific lies in the sense of community service that we all share.

Our resources are limited, we rely (some say too much) on donor aid for most improvements in our day-to-day lives, and though market players such as TVL have a tremendously influential role to play, their success is largely contingent on the willingness and capacity of the community to take advantage of their products and services.

Indeed, one the defining characteristics of these commercial operations is their close ties to the local community. Every day we saw TVL staffers contributing time and attention to ensuring the conference ran smoothly. Many attendees commended the quality and performance of the WiMax broadband link donated by TVL, one of the largest deployed to date in Vanuatu. The consensus is that it was every bit as good as they’d seen in conferences in Australia or New Zealand.

But all the Internet bandwidth in the world won’t help us if we don’t make the most of what we have. It was for this reason that conference organisers decided to concentrate on the next generation of Internet technologies. All week long, IT professionals focused on the deployment of a new kind of addressing system for the Internet.

Called IPv6, this protocol will allow the Internet to continue to grow in the years to come. Just as every mobile phone needs its own number, every computer connected to the Internet requires a unique address in order for others to be able to talk to it. The first allocation of about 4 billion numbers is about to run out, and unless action is taken, this will severely limit the growth of the Internet in the Asia-Pacific region.

Once we’ve assured that everyone can get an address, the next task is to help people find a way to make use of those addresses. That’s why PacINET 2010 organisers helped arrange a meeting between Michael Hutak, Oceania director of the One Laptop Per Child project and the Prime Minister. PM Natapei showed his continuing commitment to the development of a comprehensive ICT policy, promising his support for a year long trial of up to 2000 of these robust, low-cost and low-power devices in Vanuatu’s outer islands.

Following the meeting, Hutak was quick to point out that one cannot simply parachute laptops into a community and expect everything to work swimmingly. “Follow up,” said Hutak, “is crucial.”

He was preaching to the choir. Led by volunteer George Tasso with significant support from the Department of Education, VITUS members organised a full-day event for school principals aimed at informing them of the perils and profits involved in ICT deployment in schools.

Tasso and others have been working for over a year now with local IT volunteers, pairing them up with schools in Port Vila and organising high-level support and assistance from more experienced VITUS members. The result is that young volunteers not only get the opportunity to learn from more experienced colleagues, but schools benefit from no-cost, on-site technical support.

This week’s workshop featured the announcement of a partnership between Edwards Computer Foundation and Vanuatu schools in which IT graduates will be paired with a mentor from within the VITUS community and given the opportunity to spend time in a post-graduation work-study programme in community schools.

The Internet helps make old things new again. It provides a new and powerful way to ensure that the bonds of family and society continue to tie everyone in Vanuatu together. At this year’s PacINET conference, we saw yet again how strong communities make society healthier and more able to develop itself.

Our Greatest Wealth

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

Being rich is having money. Being wealthy is having time.

Vanuatu is rich in time, if little else. Everywhere you look, you’ll see people loitering, chatting, sitting together, wiling away the hours.

Doug Patterson’s Kranke Kona cartoon contrasts the Vanuatu way with the outside world’s hurry-up approach to life brilliantly: Two amiable men, sitting under the coconut tree, see an expat scurrying by, briefcase in hand, mobile phone pressed to his ear. They ask him why he’s in such a rush. He replies that if he works without respite every day, some day he’ll be able to slow down and enjoy life.

I sympathise more with the two brothers under the tree than I do with the expat. But the real humour lies in the juxtaposition. As enamoured as we all are with having the time to do things well, time is, nonetheless, a finite resource. And while it’s easy to say that time is money, we need to ensure that we don’t focus too much on its price and not enough on its value.

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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.’

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A National Plan

I have a confession to make. I’m a snob. At least, I am where technology is concerned. Okay, maybe I’m not the type to cross the street when I see someone with last year’s doohickey du jour. But I do notice when your smart phone looks (or acts) like a brick. I can tell at a glance whether your machine is a cutting edge screamer or the technological equivalent of East Germany’s Brabant automobile, legendary for its poor quality.

I like good engineering, good design and efficient performance. In short, I like things that do their job well, whatever that job may be. I like it so much that I hate to settle for less than the best. Not the biggest, necessarily, nor the most expensive. Just the best.

This focus on tools made me lose sight of a couple of important things: First, while doing things perfectly is a commendable ideal, it happens exactly 0% of the time in the real world. Second, Vanuatu is more, er, ‘real world’ than many other places on Earth.

In case you haven’t noticed, I’m a bit of a leftie when it comes to computing. I like to see as much power in the hands of the people as possible. While it’s nice – and often necessary – to rely on services provided by others, I’ve always believed that DIY is the most empowering way to go. So, when the news began to percolate out that Vanuatu would have truly national mobile phone services, I was interested mostly in how that might help the spread of computers into the islands.

What I didn’t consider is that the mobile might actually become the computer.
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Riding the Tide

For almost a month now, the Vanuatu IT Users Society has been conducting demonstrations of the One Laptop Per Child Project’s XO laptop. These demos have led to numerous conversations about computers, the Internet and access to information. What affect is this going to have on the Vanuatu way of life?

Most people assume that as a geek, I see technology as a Good Thing, one of the miracles of the modern age. That’s not always the case.

The professional life of an ICT professional is fraught with dangers. They’re not personal dangers, of course. There are few safer things to do than plunking down in front of a computer for several hours each day. The risks a geek faces are risks of responsibility. Every choice we make has implications, some of which can be quite serious, especially in places where resources are limited.

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Stars in Their Eyes

In an online discussion recently, I defended the XO laptop by mentioning how impressed people were when I conducted demonstrations of the hardware and software. If the XO is such a mediocre piece of hardware, “why,” I asked, “do people walk away with stars in their eyes?”

I went on to say that in my experience, I’d never seen any technological device more appropriate to the particular task of providing a useful learning environment for children in remote and/or underdeveloped areas.

This was met with a particularly vehement explosion of outrage, accompanied by accusations that I was “happy because there’s a new toy in the block, to help [me] with [my] ideologically-motivated occupation.”

I confess to an impish desire to agree with that accusation.

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There’s been a ton of interest in the OLPC laptop ever since the Vanuatu IT User Society (VITUS) obtained a prototype to demonstrate to people here in Vanuatu. A few readers will have already attended one of the VITUS demonstrations. In the interests of raising awareness about this new approach to learning technology, here are a few common questions and answers about the laptop, the project, and OLPC-related activities in Vanuatu.
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