Dec 12, 2018 Last Updated 7:42 PM, Dec 12, 2018

The blockchain conversation has finally touched down in the Pacific. Not only is it a major buzz in tech circles here, Papua New Guinea (PNG) is about to take a technological leap in becoming the first country in the region to create a Special Economic Zone (SEZ) for blockchain development.

Behind that initiative is PNG born but Silicon Valley based tech venture capitalist Shane Ninai with the backing of US billionaire Tim Draper.

They are bringing the blockchain fever to a country where more and more young IT professionals are exploring the technology, described as so revolutionary it is a potential game changer for emerging economies around the world.

Although the bill to set up the SEZ is the subject of controversy locally, the project no doubt adds to the growing interest from companies, organisations Blockchain finds a home in the Pacific and individuals in the Pacific to explore what’s on offer in the blockchain space.

This is the technology that created what is known as cryptocurrency, the latest craze in the global technology world.

You would have a clue as to what cryptocurrency is if you’ve heard of something called bitcoin, which is described as ‘electronic cash’ used over the Internet to buy and sell.

When this edition went to press, one bitcoin was equivalent to Kina 20,880, F$13,763, AU$9060 and US$6416 to give you some idea of its value. What can you buy with bitcoin? 

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Cabling the Pacific

Fast, reliable and affordable Internet has quickly become such an essential part of our lives these days that to imagine a world without broadband Internet connection is almost as unimaginable as life without oxygen.

Indeed it wasn’t too long ago that only a few people in the Pacific knew what the Internet really was while a majority of us existed largely in ignorant bliss.

But the explosion of smart phone, laptop and tablet usage among the general population within just the last two decades – driven mainly by the evolution of the Internet into broadband, spawning a plethora of Internet applications suitable for general, everyday usage – has made those pre-Internet days a distant, foggy memory.

And in a lesser time than that, the rapid roll out of fiber-optic submarine telecom cables (Internet traffic are transported from one point to another through either fiber optic cables or satellite) in the Pacific has been an even more impressive phenomenon, prompting interest in tech circles.

“In 2007, only four Pacific Islands were connected to an international submarine cable: CNMI, Guam, Fiji and Papua New Guinea. Since then, ten international cables have been constructed, bringing sub-sea fiber optic connectivity for the first time to a further eight Pacific islands. A further ten cables are currently in various stages of development that would provide inaugural connections for another nine Pacific islands,” said George Samisoni, CEO of Fiji’s international carrier FINTEL (Fiji International Telecommunications Limited).

FINTEL was one of the Pacific pioneers in linking to an international cable when it connected to the COMPAC (Commonwealth Pacific Cable) system in the 1960s, then later ANZCAN and then the SCCN (Southern Cross Cable Network) in 1999.

“If most of these proposals are carried through to fruition, then all Pacific islands, at least the main island of each of the Pacific island countries, will have direct access to fiber optic internet capacity. This is a remarkable development considering that for over a century, submarine cables were only ever landed on a Pacific island to regenerate the communications signal so that it could complete its trans-Pacific journey,” Samisoni told Islands Business.

The latest delivery of such a project was the successful landing of the Hawaiki Cable System in Taufuna, American Samoa in April this year. 

Owned by the New Zealand headquartered LP Hawaiki Submarine Cable LP, the system links Australia, New Zealand, Hawaii and Oregon on the US West Coast.

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AS the sun sets over Tuvalu, children shriek in the lagoon of the main atoll - Funafuti.

This is the way life has been in the Pacific for as long as people can remember.

But sea levels in the lagoon are rising and the waves have started to gnaw away at the coast – slowly, surely – in an inevitable march which may see the world’s and fourth smallest nation sink and disappear.

A modern-day Atlantis under siege from coastal erosion and salt water intrusion.

What happens if Tuvalu’s nine atolls descend into the blue Pacific, swamped by rising waves or washed away by deadly storms? Once uninhabitable or invisible, who will own the 900,000 square kilometres of ocean between Hawaii and Australia?

The United Nations estimates Tuvalu’s tuna to be worth an annual USD41million – that’s about 36,000 tonnes of Skipjack, Yellowfin and Bigeye Tuna.

Tuvalu operates a single vessel in conjunction with a South Korean company with most of the stocks being harvested by international fishing vessels.

Current laws governing the Exclusive Economic Zone and the borders of maritime nations refer to specific physical reference points from which to determine the area of sovereignty.

Those physical points are generally islands or atolls which can sustain life.

Sustainability of life on remote islets and atolls is becoming increasingly difficult on Tuvalu, Kiribati and other Pacific countries.

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The Big Threat

Organised crime creeps into the region

A NEW crime wave looms over the region – this time on the back of motorbikes. As Australia and New Zealand crack down on the illicit trading activities of Outlawed Motorcycle Gangs, these criminal groups have sought new targets and found them in the world’s soft underbelly.

With porous maritime borders which stretch for miles and few assets to patrol the sea, the Pacific is wide open for illegal business. Law enforcement agencies have battle for years will illegal transnational activities at sea, says Oceania Customs Organisation Chief Executive Officer, Seve Paeniu.

“We have maritime issues not only with illegal fishing but transfer on the high sea (of fuel and other supplies), all those illicit activities through the waters (open seas),” Paeniu said. In the early 1990s police uncovered the transfer of contraband cigarettes to Chinese fishing ships on the high seas for transportation to Fiji for sale.

Unable to hit the offending vessels at sea, police used tax evasion laws to crackdown on shops and market stalls selling the cigarettes. With its porous borders, need for foreign investment and weak law enforcement agencies, the Pacific fits the profile for transnational criminals dealing with drugs, arms smuggling, human trafficking and money laundering.

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Fiji unions triumph

Court favours airport workers’ plight

A bitter row between the management of Fiji’s Air Terminal Services (ATS) and its employees who were locked out of work for 35 days including Christmas and New Year ended last month with the court’s sympathy towards the workers. The Employment Relations Tribunal presided by Australian Andrew See ordered ATS management to allow the workers back to work and to pay them for the days they were locked out.

About 70 staff on shift on Saturday, 16 December left their stations to attend a three-hour shareholders meeting. When they returned to work, the gate was locked and the security had instructions from management not to let anyone back in.

ATS board chair Riyaz Khaiyum and CEO Hare Mani claimed the workers went on strike and instructed HR manager Richard Donaldson to issue suspension letters to over 300 workers, including those not at work that day and those on leave. If they wanted their jobs back, they were told to sign a letter admitting their action was illegal and they could be further reprimanded.

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