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.

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.

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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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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Boom or Bust?

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

We need fiber, and we need it soon.

No, I’m not talking about changing the nation’s diet. I’m talking about fiber-optic cable. Made of very long strands of glass fiber, this kind of cable has the unique ability to allow light to turn corners. This means that we can shoot tiny laser pulses into one end of it and have them emerge intact from the other end, even if it’s thousands of kilometers away.

The result? Fast, very high-capacity communications become possible. In laboratory experiments, researchers have achieved rates of up to 14 trillion bits of data per second. Current commercial implementations don’t go nearly that fast, but even a single thread of fiber a few millimeters wide can carry billions of bits every second. Just a few strands would be enough to increase Vanuatu’s total available bandwidth to a large multiple of its current capacity.

So what’s the catch? Why haven’t we invested in a fiber connection yet? Fiji has it, and so does New Caledonia. Why not Vanuatu?

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The Numbers Game

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

At a public meeting recently held in Port Vila, Digicel Pacific General Counsel David Dillon estimated that Digicel and TVL combined have about 100,000 active mobile subscriptions in Vanuatu. If that number is correct – and I believe it is – it means that the number of subscriptions has increased by a stunning 400% in less than a year.

100,000. Let’s think about that for a second.

In the big cities of the world, selling 80,000 new subscriptions is a modest achievement. But here in Vanuatu, simply finding that many is a herculean feat. Extrapolating from the 2001 census numbers, we can estimate that there are roughly 55,000 people living in Port Vila and Santo today. Pick any reasonable percentage of people actually using mobile phone services, and it quickly becomes evident that reaching the reported subscription level requires pretty significant penetration into places that had never had mobile services before.

Digicel, TVL and the government of Vanuatu have achieved a truly remarkable thing. This is nothing short of a communications revolution.

Nobody doubts that the effect of opening the telecoms market is a fundamental transformation in the way Vanuatu society interacts. But it’s difficult to characterise the exact nature and scope of the impact.

It would be nice to quote statistical chapter and verse, but we don’t have enough publicly available information to do so.

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Regulating Telecommunications

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

Last Thursday, members of the IT industry, researchers and interested members of the public got together with Ministry of Infrastructure and Public Utilities to discuss proposed new laws governing Vanuatu’s burgeoning telecommunications sector.

At issue was a Bill to define the precise role of the Telecommunications Regulator. Designed to supplement the existing Telecommunications Act of 1989, it outlines in detail the extent of the Regulator’s mandate to influence the newly-liberalised telecoms market.

The draft Bill describes an environment wherein the Regulator has wide latitude to impose his will on telecoms operators if they misbehave. Among other things, he can enforce fair and equitable access to rare or unique infrastructure (known as bottleneck resources), he can intervene if telecoms operators are deemed to be offering preferential or prejudicial prices to others and if necessary he can enforce tariff or pricing regimes on carriers if they don’t play fair.

Viewed in the light of their exemplary track record, the draft Bill reflects well on both the Ministry and the Regulator. To date, their attitude has been to let market forces work with little if any intervention. They have nonetheless made sure that the regulatory stick they hold in reserve holds real clout. The proposed Bill gives this all the force of law. Rather than relying in the language of various negotiated agreements, they’ve outlined a set of rules that applies to anyone and everyone operating in the telecoms sector.

Others aren’t so sure that a big regulatory stick is such a good thing….

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Safeguarding the Internet Commons

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

On January 5th, the Sydney Morning Herald published a story titled, “Dial X for Optus.” The feature recounted the story, by now well known in Vanuatu, of how Optus collaborated with certain Pacific Islands nations to make tens of millions of dollars in profit from the pornography industry.

The scheme,” wrote Vanda Carson, “allowed the telcos to bill customers premium rates for sexually explicit calls or X-rated downloads when they dialled the country codes” of many Pacific nations, Vanuatu included. “Optus was part of the partnership of telcos which acted as gatekeepers in the porn trade between the US and Europe and small Pacific islands.”

As if that wasn’t bad enough, Optus illegally appropriated 100 Vanuatu telephone numbers and kept all revenues generated by them.

None of that could happen today. With the creation of a functioning and effective Telecommunications Regulator, we now have proper oversight on how Vanuatu’s communications resources are used. The government of Vanuatu has made great strides in ensuring that all telephone operators manage their systems responsibly and efficiently.

Now we need to do the same for our Internet resources.

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