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.

NEWS FLASH – TVL, Digicel Merge, Announce Joint Venture

[Yes, this is an April Fools’ story. Any relation to actual people or events is purely satirical. ed.]

April 1, 2010 – Port Vila

In a move that stunned the telecommunications industry, Digicel Pacific and Telecom Vanuatu Ltd. have announced a merger, simultaneously unveiling a massive Internet project that could revolutionise communications across the entire Pacific ‘Ring of Fire.’

Jacky Audebeau, CTO of the new joint venture, to be named TeleDigiVanuaCel Ltd., announced the plan at a press conference at the Forari Mine site this morning.

“We’re confident that this joint venture will provide us with the resources necessary to utterly change the way people communicate throughout the Pacific region,” he said.

The plan uses the strong magnetic resonance found in magma chambers buried deep under the Earth’s surface. By inserting large antennas deep underground, the project aims to create signals by generating massive radio waves and transmitting them through these subterranean chambers at
nearly light speed.

Asked whether early work on this technology had anything to do with the recent increase in activity in all of Vanuatu’s volcanoes, Audebeau looked sheepish and muttered only that sometimes to have to break a few omelettes to lay an egg.

The joint venture came about under unusual circumstances, said Audebeau. Apparently, he ran into new Digicel Pacific owner Denis O’Brien at Port Vila’s Anchor Inn last weekend, and a dispute arose over the relative merits of French wine and Irish Whiskey. After 3 hours of bitter dispute and extensive sampling, the two realised they should no longer fight.

“I couldn’t figure out which one of him to hit,” said Audebeau. “So I thought, ‘what the hey? If you can’t beat them, join them.’ Now somebody get me a glass of water and some panadol. I feel like I have fur on my brain.”

A spin-off company named Forari Online Operations Ltd (FOOL) will handle the funding and development of the Ameliorated Projection of Radio Into Lava (APRIL) technology.

Global Village or Digital Island?

A mother shows her daughter how to textElectronic media have been with us for a couple of lifetimes now, and many of the lessons that once seemed revolutionary, even world-changing, have been reduced to mundane platitudes. Here in Vanuatu, however, we would do well to relearn them. A new report from the Pacific Institute of Public Policy gives us that opportunity.

Marshall McLuhan’s rise to prominence as a cultural icon parallels that of television. Today, just like television, he is as widely lionised as he is misunderstood. Like credulous children, we toss around the terms he minted without a moment’s reflection. ‘The media’ has become a shibboleth for corporate commentary on the events of the day, filtered arbitrarily through a lens that sees no further than the next ratings cycle.

McLuhan saw this trend and feared it. Contrary to popular belief, his famous image of a global village was a pessimistic, almost despairing vision. A flickering television screen replaced the campfire at the centre of the human experience, but those huddled around it, seeking meaning in its seductive gaze, were as brutish and unreflective as he imagined early man to be.

It’s a shame he wasn’t around to see the how the rise of personal communications has subverted this dark vision. A new PiPP report, “Social and economic impact of introducing telecommunications throughout Vanuatu”, demonstrates unambiguously that access to personal communications has the power to change lives.

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Communications as Survival

‘Storian hemi laef blong yumi’ – Telecom Vanuatu’s new slogan could not be more true.

In times of crisis, communication and coordination enable us to survive and to recover quickly.

When an earthquake occured between Samoa and Tonga early in the morning of September 29th, it created a tsunami that struck the inhabitants on the eastern and southeastern parts of the island within minutes. Sirens sounded and church bells rang all over side of the island, sending people fleeing to higher ground.

The latest reports from Samoa indicate that in addition to at least 149 dead, 640 families comprising roughly 3200 people have lost their homes and possessions. Most have yet to to return to their villages, and are without proper access to power, water and other basic amenities.

Food, water, clothing and shelter are all critical elements of the relief effort.

Equally important is the ability to communicate.

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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.

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Open Season

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

With the recent passage of a new telecommunications Act (awkwardly titled the TELECOMMUNICATIONS AND RADIOCOMMUNICATION REGULATION ACT), Vanuatu has taken another important step in ensuring continued success in building openness and fairness into the business of communications.

Parts of the Act, currently awaiting the President’s signature, validate and give force of law to terms and conditions already included in the licenses issued to our two incumbent telcos. It also provides an overall framework for continued growth, expansion and innovation. Most importantly, it makes permanent the office of the Telecommunications Regulator.

(Before I go on, I should make it clear that the text of the Bill was under discussion until shortly before it was voted on. The version I was able to view was not the official text. That will only become available once the Clerk of Parliament receives the signed Act from the President. That said, I’m pretty confident that those parts of the Act discussed here are unchanged.)

Perhaps the most notable aspect of this new legislation is the delegation of the right to issue telecoms licenses to the Regulator. Until the Act takes effect, this power is retained by the Minister.

John Crook, the Interim Telecommunications Regulator, has made it clear that he wants to see the process of obtaining what’s termed a Telecommunications Operator License to be as simple and direct as possible. All that should be required to start a new Internet Service Provider is to demonstrate that you have the right to operate such a business in Vanuatu, that you have the means to do so and that you’re willing to play by the rules.

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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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Tit For Tat

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

We’ve seen a lot of griping and moaning recently about – and by – our two telcos. The former is not really news in and of itself. The fact of the matter is that anyone relying on technology in Vanuatu will have ample cause to complain before very long. Human, logistical and environmental factors in Vanuatu conspire against even the best-intentioned, making high-tech businesses here a pale echo indeed of what one might see in Sydney or Auckland.

To see our two telcos descend to a juvenile level of petty and rather vindictive name-calling and insinuation, however, was surprising and not at all welcome.

On top of the all-too-familiar litany of complaints concerning mobile telephone costs and service levels, readers of the Daily Post this week witnessed a public dust-up of playground proportions between TVL and Digicel. If we’re to believe the two providers, a mobile user’s choice of providers is between an incompetent dinosaur and a dishonest fast dealer.

Neither depiction is accurate, useful or informative for people in Vanuatu. It leads one to wonder whether either of them really understands where they live. This undignified public display is an object lesson in how NOT to win friends and influence people in Vanuatu.

One thing is for certain: As far as the public is concerned, the post-liberalisation honeymoon is definitely over.

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Selling Democracy – ctd.

Farhad Manjoo says the Revolution will not be digitised. His recent Slate column, subtitled “How the Internet helps Iran silence activists” makes the obvious point that technology makes all aspects of communications easier – even the unpleasant ones. But his simplistic analysis misses the import of his own observation.

The key to all this is his failure to distinguish between the network and the protocol. Manjoo says that the Internet helps Iran’s repressive efforts. That’s not true, at least not nearly to the extent he thinks. The network – the physical infrastructure of cables, switching and routing equipment, is what’s trapping people right now. If it weren’t for the end-to-end nature of the software protocols that make up what we conveniently call the Internet, little if any news at all would have emerged from Iran.

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