Tongan authorities have not ruled out foul play as the country recovers from two weeks offline.
Tonga’s international and domestic subsea cable lines were severely damaged on 20 January. Initial reports suggested the anchor of a container ship caused the damage, however police have not ruled out sabotage or human interference.
The Tongan international cable line runs from Tonga’s capital Nuku’alofa to Fiji, while the domestic line runs from Nuku’alofa to Ha’apai then on to Vava’u. Specialists involved in the repair work reportedly found two breaks along the vital optic cables of Tonga’s international lines. Two additional breaks situated a few kilometres apart were found in then domestic cable lines.
Tonga’s Cable Director Piveni Piukala told overseas media that crew members on a repair ship found a rope tangled in the domestic cable for about 100 metres. He added that the cables were twisted and damaged along that length.
Piukala said he still had doubts about the theory that a ship could have accidentally applied such a force to the cable, causing such extensive damage over such large distances.
Meanwhile Fiji International Telecommunication Limited CEO George Samisoni said the cable lines were protected by armored piping, and that sub-sea cables near and in coastal waters were usually buried three metres underground along the shore end.
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As the Marshall Islands parliament considers the World Bank-drafted legislation to open the telecommunications sector to competition for the first time, the future of the Marshall Islands government-owned National Telecommunications Authority (NTA) hangs in the balance. The World Bank’s offer of an unconditional grant of US$13 million in exchange for allowing competition in telecommunications has enticed the government to move forward despite warnings that the legislation will “kill” the existing telecom and saddle the government with its US$27 million loan debts.
Fiji-based Digicel, which is financed by the World Bank, is seen as the competition waiting in the wings to enter this north Pacific market. National Telecommunications Authority (NTA) General Manager Tommy Kijiner, Jr. says it is a shortsighted thinking by the government if it adopts the World Bank inspired legislation in exchange for US$13 million since it will “force NTA to cease its business, thereby depriving our Marshallese shareholders of their investment in our company.” During a late September hearing on the legislation, Kijiner repeatedly emphasized that the legislation will give new entrants a significant edge over NTA. “It is not fear of competition,” Kijiner said of his opposition to the legislation.
“Rather it is fear of the unfair nature of the proposed legislation.” Earlier this year, when the legislation was first up for review by government, NTA asked to be consulted before it was introduced to parliament. “We were directed by cabinet to meet with the Chief Secretary, Attorney-General and Secretary of Finance (to discuss modifications to the legislation),” Kijiner said. “The morning we were to meet, the World Bank consultant on the project was in town and said if we were make any changes, the first US$3 million will not be forthcoming.”
That aborted the local consultation and the World Bank written legislation has now been introduced to parliament. NTA, which has significant private sector investment but is still majority owned by the government, has been a legislated monopoly since it was established in the late 1980s. The government guaranteed two large loans from the U.S. Rural Utilities Service to fund the initial establishment of NTA and its services, and four years ago, the installation of a submarine fiber optic cable linking the Marshall Islands to Guam.
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Fiji’s publicly listed telecommunication group ATH (Amalgamated Telecom Holdings) landed itself a better deal in last month’s takeover of the country’s partly government-owned international carrier FINTEL (Fiji International Telecommunications Ltd.). ATH revealed it had acquired the Fiji Government’s 51 percent in FINTEL for F$9 million, a huge discount compared to the F$18 million it paid 18 months ago when it bought 49 percent of the company from the UK-headquartered Cable & Wireless Communications (CWC). Last month’s purchase is funded by the Fiji National Provident Fund, which owns 58.2% of ATH.
Now the new sole owner of the troubled carrier, ATH consolidates its position as a substantial and influential player in Fiji and the Pacific’s telecom market, as the acquisition means it now controls the management of the Fiji gateway to the Southern Cross Cable Network (SCCN), a trans-Pacific submarine communication cable network that links Fiji to mainland USA, Australia and New Zealand. “In today’s environment, especially with the growth in traffic, we are witnessing with the broadband and Internet growth the desire of even our Pacific islands neighbours to secure international sub-sea cable connectivity, with Tonga launching its connectivity via Fiji—a number of other countries are keenly interested to secure good international telecommunication,” ATH said in a statement last month when announcing the purchase.
“It is even more important that we ensure that such a strategic asset which provides critical access continues to facilitate the improvement of delivery of end-to-end telecommunications services in Fiji so that the benefits to end users are improved.” In recent times, Fiji’s position in the SCCN network has been the subject of much interest for some Pacific Islands countries (PICs) who do not have international cable access. Increasingly, considerations have been made by them to link to Fiji in order to get international connectivity through cable, an option that is now being seen as more cost-effective as data needs begin to rise with increasing Internet usage in the Pacific.
A new era in communications and service delivery arrived in Tonga last month when high speed broadband access was delivered to Tongan households via the click of a mouse by the King of Tonga, Tupou VI. King Tupou, in the presence of Tongan Prime Minister Lord Tu’ivakano, commissioned the new service from the Tonga Cable Limited Station in Sopu, Tongatapu. Government officials, representatives from Tongan Communications Corporation (TCC), the Asian Development Bank (ADB), the World Bank Group, media, and others attended the event.
The project continues ADB’s firm commitment to supporting Pacific innovation, inclusion and integration. Launched in January 2012, the US$32.8 million Pacific Regional Connectivity Project cofinanced by ADB, the World Bank, and TCC connects Tonga via an underwater fiber optic cable system to the Southern Cross Cable, the main trans-Pacific link between Australia and the United States. The establishment and operation of the 827-km submarine cable system, which runs from Tonga to Fiji, will provide Tonga’s population of 100,000 with fast, affordable access to the internet and other information and communication technology (ICT) services.
The project was completed ahead of time and under budget. The arrival of high speed broadband is the latest milestone for the project, which will lift Tonga’s international connectivity. High speed internet will help business to expand, creating jobs and improving access to remote health and education services. TCC is the first internet service provider to sign up to use the fiber optic cable.
ADB is working right across the Pacific with its developing member countries to enhance regional integration, foster innovation and reduce poverty through inclusive economic growth. For example, ADB is also working with the Solomon Islands Government to boost international connectivity through the Solomon Islands Broadband for Development Project, approved in 2012.
Joji Nava is a 21-year old from Namarai Village in Nakorotubu, Ra on the western side of Fiji’s main island Viti Levu. Dropping out of school in 2010, he decided to return to his village to start subsistence farming to help feed his family. People on that side of the island are hindered by poor roading and transportation. Information on the best place to sell their crops to attract the right price is another major hindrance. While Nava has started planting yaqona, he’s cautious about getting the cash crop to the market and ensuring it is sold to retain the cost of getting it to the market is another. Hence he is hindered by lack of information. Devesh Nath sells dry cowpeas, okra, chillies and non BQA crop seeds from his Votualevu operation in Nadi. “I have a greenhouse where I produce seedlings for my suppliers, farmers and also to carry out my own planting,” he told Islands Business. Nath, Nava and 20 plus stakeholders from the agriculture industry attended an International Trade Centre workshop on Mobile Application Workshop in Lautoka recently where the importance of mobile phone applications as an important tool in agriculture was highlighted. While Nath was excited about the prospects of better usage of mobiles to help market his products and improve his operations, he said he would prefer that mobiles were used as a platform that could link the whole industry to a chain. “I believe the network would help me plan my operations financially and farm better,” he said.