Plus ca change…

When I arrived in Vanuatu about 7 years ago, uptake on Internet was limited to a small minority. Prices were about 10 times what I’d been paying at home, and the total amount of available bandwidth nationally was only slightly more than I’d had on my own personal DSL line.

Now, in 2010, we’ve spent the better part of a decade helping people get online, getting people in front of computers and teaching them to make the most of the learning and social opportunities that the Internet provides.

The recent release of Ookla’s Household Download Index allows us to measure how far we, as a nation, have come.

Uptake on Internet is still limited to a tiny minority. The pool of Internet users has risen substantially in real numbers, but as a percentage of population, the numbers are still so small that, in a recent national telecoms survey, the researchers declined even to ask about Internet. The data set was too small to be relevant.

Prices today have effectively risen, megabit for megabit, relative to developed markets. Oh, they’ve dropped from the stratospheric levels they used to inhabit (US $1000/month for 128 Kbps and a 100 MB download limit). But you still pay over US $500/month for a single megabit which, occasionally, actually delivers a megabit of bandwidth. When it works.

Most depressing of all, the total amount of bandwidth available for the entire country is only slightly more than the average bandwidth capacity of a single household in Seoul, Korea.

Let me say that again: There are people in Seoul – and countless other cities in the world – who have more bandwidth at their personal disposal than a quarter of a million people here in the Pacific.

Pent-up demand for Internet is easily on the same scale as we’ve witnessed for mobile telephony services these last two years. Informal markers (like the average number of facebook friends among ni-Vanuatu Internet users) show that people love the potential of the Internet and will go to lengths to access it.

But nobody is willing to actually invest in it.

Even Digicel Vanuatu, who over a year ago imported a new CTO with extensive wireless Internet experience, have yet to provide an offering viable for day-to-day use even for the average expat customer.

Frankly, I find it depressing that, in spite of years of advocacy, lobbying and awareness-raising, the movers and shakers here in Vanuatu don’t appear to have learned a thing about the importance of either communications or technology.