Aug 07, 2020 Last Updated 5:12 AM, Aug 6, 2020

A new deal could potentially provide more Pacific Island countries access to affordable Internet via submarine telecom cable. 

The multi-million dollar deal was jointly announced in New Zealand last week by its signatories Hawaiki Submarine Cable LP, American Samoa Telecommunications Authority (ASTCA) and American Samoa Hawaii Cable LLC (ASH). 

The three parties have direct interests in the newly installed Hawaiki Transpacific cable system which began commercial operations last year and links Australia and New Zealand to Hawaii (branching into American Samoa along the way) then to the U.S. mainland.    

“The multi-million dollar deal announced today brings three operators together to take advantage of the Hawaiki branch to American Samoa, securing trans-Pacific connectivity into the future and providing critical diversity to help drive ASH’s wholesale business and deliver fast, reliable international broadband to local operators and ISPs in American Samoa, Samoa, French Polynesia and other nations and territories,” the parties announced in a joint statement.

“ASH, jointly owned by Fiji’s ATH Group and the American Samoa Government, owns the Samoa to American Samoa (SAS) cable and allows Hawaiki bandwidth and circuits to reach beyond American Samoa to Samoa and all interconnected points, including French Polynesia, Cook Islands, and Niue (via the soon-to-be-RFS Manatua cable), as well as Fiji and Wallis and Futuna (via the Tui Cable, commissioned in 2018).”

ASTCA, a state-owned telecom in American Samoa, owns the 400km subsea branch that connects the Hawaiki trunk to the U.S. territory while Hawaiki Submarine Cable LP owns the cable system.

The Hawaiki cable system is 15,000km long, has a 67Terabit per second capacity, is carrier-neutral and includes stubbed branching units to allow potential future connections to New Caledonia, Fiji and Tonga.

Hawaiki CEO Remi Galasso described the agreement as an important milestone for communications in the South Pacific, forming the basis for future collaborations between the company and the growing number of carriers servicing the region.

“Bridging the digital divide in the Pacific is something that has been part of Hawaiki’s DNA from the beginning. In these challenging times, communications infrastructure and reliable connectivity have an even more critical role to play in supporting the continuity and development of businesses and communities in regions that have traditionally been underserved,” he said.

Shareholders in Fiji’s biggest telecom conglomerate are being offered more shares for cash.

Amalgamated Telecom Holdings (ATH), which owns all major telecom carriers in Fiji except Digicel Fiji, is listed on the South Pacific Stock Exchange (SPX) and announced this week a 1 share for 6.66 rights issue, at a discount price of F$2 (US$.88) per share.

ATH currently trades at F$2.40 per share, so eligible shareholders who take up the offer will enjoy a 40 cents per share discount (17 per cent), although the end result will see a general dilution of shares as over 63 million new ATH shares will be issued in a bid to raise F$126.76million (US$55.89million).

ATH currently has over 422 million issued shares. 

In the Offer Document for the rights issue, company chairman Ajith Kodagoda said funds raised will be used to recapitalise ATH’s balance sheet by “repaying borrowings, providing funding for capital investments and for general corporate and working capital purposes” and provide the company with financial flexibility. 

Details also reveal that F$100million raised will go towards capital investments while F$26.76million will be working capital. 

ATH is majority owned by the Fiji National Provident Fund (72.2 per cent) and the Fiji Government (17.2 per cent) with the rest held by over 1000 individuals, companies and trust funds in Fiji and the Pacific, including the Samoa National Provident Fund. 

The ATH rights issue will take place between May 18th and June 18th

 

The Supreme Court of Papua New Guinea (PNG) has this week declined to answer questions asked of it regarding the SIM card registration regulation of 2016. The direct impact of this court hearing is that unregistered SIM cards currently in use in mobile phones around the country will likely be deactivated in coming days. A recent news article suggested that 40% of SIM cards in use are unregistered. Unless the regulator, the National Information and Communications Technology Authority (NICTA) grants the users of these unregistered SIM cards additional time, these people will find themselves no longer able to make phone calls, send text messages and so on.

A full bench of the Supreme Court heard the case on Wednesday 18 December 2019. The five judges sitting were justices Salika, Kandakasi, Cannings, David and Hartshorn. They did not reach a decision as such. Instead, they declined to give an opinion regarding questions asked of the court by the Ombudsman Commission.

The court proceeding was Supreme Court Reference 1/2019, which was instigated by the Ombudsman Commission early in 2019 as a special reference pursuant to section 19 of the constitution. In essence, this means that the Ombudsman Commission questioned the constitutionality of mandatory SIM card registration. The deactivation of SIM cards was on hold for most of 2019 whilst this matter was awaiting resolution.

The SIM card regulation stemmed from the NICTA Act, as the enabling or parent act. The Commission tried to argue that the regulation restricts certain freedoms enshrined in the constitution and therefore such a regulation should have to go through parliament. The Commission’s first question of the court did not specify any act or regulation, but instead asked the court to consider whether or not a regulation which impacts upon freedoms should be passed by a majority in parliament even when it is linked to an act which has been through the same process. Two further questions were submitted by the Commission to the court, but these were not discussed in detail because judges interrupted the Commission’s presentation to ask about the express rights being infringed.

Lawyer Charles Kaki from Kawat Lawyers was representing NICTA. He said that the first question was too general and stated that the second and third questions stemmed from the first question. He said that the submission was incompetent and suggested that perhaps the court could direct the Ombudsman Commission to re-frame the questions. Lawyer Tauvasa Tanuvasa Chou-Lee, the Solicitor General of Papua New Guinea, suggested that the court should decline to answer the questions raised by the Ombudsman Commission.

The judges conferred amongst themselves and then announced that they had decided to decline to give an opinion on the three questions put to them. They said that the questions have no immediate relevance to circumstances in PNG.

The outcome of this court hearing could have a very real impact on the many people who live in rural and remote communities across PNG, where mobile phones provide the only available form of communication. There is now no legal impediment to NICTA imposing the regulation, which means that telecommunication companies will face large fines if there are unregistered SIM cards in use. Deactivation of SIM cards in the days before Christmas seems likely. I hope that NICTA will choose to grant additional time for SIM card registration. Ideally, financial resources could be mobilised so that additional efforts can be made to promote registration and explain the reasons for registration. To effectively reach the remaining users, registration teams would need to travel to remote areas, which would obviously be a costly and time-consuming process. At this time though, with the PNG economy struggling and government coffers stretched towards their limits, it is difficult to imagine where such resources would come from.

 

Thank you to UPNG tutor Mr Joseph Pundu for his assistance. This article appeared first on Devpolicy Blog from the Development Policy Centre.

Dr Amanda H A Watson is a Research Fellow with the Department of Pacific Affairs, Australian National University

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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Marshalls market too small

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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