What Lies Ahead?

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

Recently we’ve seen a bit of a lull in activity (or at least excitement) in the Vanuatu telecommunications sector. Customers are becoming a little blasé about choice in the mobile market. The mobile telephone incumbents have more or less established their positions, with TVL making real efforts to smoothe its complexion and Digicel allowing the first small warts to peep through its make-up.

The post-election transition of power slowed the policy process down some, and movements at the executive level meant that some of the local businesses needed a bit of a breather as well.

So let’s take this opportunity to do a little crystal ball gazing. What can businesses and Internet users generally expect in the coming months?

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The Pacific Economic Survey

Earlier this week, Australia unveiled the Pacific Economic Survey here in Port Vila. Present for the event was a delegation from all around the Pacific Region, including Melanesia and Polynesia as well as senior politicians from Australia. AUSAid’s chief economist was also there to present the findings.

The report is the first of a series of annual surveys that will provide an overview and update of economic developments in the Pacific island region and Timor-Leste. It collates and summarises public data on various aspects of the region’s national economies, performs some comparative and collective analysis with the results, then provides a few basic recommendations.

The theme for this year’s report was Connectivity. The survey focuses on aviation, shipping and telecommunications. It argues that liberalisation, more input from the private sector, and a cooperative regional approach to the problems inherent in improving connectivity are keys to improving Pacific economies.

The findings in the area of telecommunications do much to validate the Government of Vanuatu’s market liberalisation strategy and provide every encouragement to expand upon them. It addresses some potential pitfalls that might be encountered, primarily where access to technical expertise is concerned. And that is where it risks missing the boat.

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The Honeymoon's Begun

On Tuesday this week, Parliament agreed to put an end to the telecommunications monopoly in Vanuatu. This news has been greeted with widespread enthusiasm. People throughout Vanuatu believe that this means the days of over-priced, low-quality telephone and Internet services are finally over. But is this really the case?

The answer is mostly yes, with a few important qualifications. It’s almost certain that costs will decrease, service coverage will increase and quality will improve. It’s also quite likely that new kinds of services will be rolled out as well. But many of the environmental factors that constrained telecommunications in the past still remain.

With competition guaranteed. The major telecoms companies are in a beauty contest now. Customers in Vanuatu will shortly find themselves being wooed by players old and new, offering all kinds of exciting services, prices and promotions.

Let’s look into our crystal ball and try to see what things will be like over the next year or so.

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Getting Out of the Way

I’ve got a friend visiting right now, a colleague of mine from my previous life in the world of software start-ups and corporate manoeuvring. For about as long as the World Wide Web has been around, we’ve been part of a community of explorers, people who defined the Web, extended it and made its strengths our own. From the mid 1990s through the so-called Dot-Com Boom, we had the sense that we were pioneers, marking trails across a new and exciting space. The frontier seemed to have infinite possibilities.

Human history shows us that after the explorers come the missionaries, and after the missionaries come the colonists. Carpet baggers, speculators, misfits and refugees seeking a better future away from the centre of things – these are among the first to arrive. Then come the homesteaders. Then come government, roads, taxes and schools. Before long, the landscape begins to look like the one they left behind.

In this version of events, those who get least mention are those who were there first. Those who, rather than shape the world in their own image, adapted to the shape of the world until it was impossible to tell where one began and the other ended.

This column’s purpose is neither to re-hash the history of Vanuatu nor to moralise about past actions. It is nonetheless useful to understand the shape of human trends, and to understand the forces that drive them. This is especially important because of Vanuatu’s nearly unique position as a country whose family- and village-based culture and ways have remained more or less intact.

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