Jan 27, 2020 Last Updated 3:52 AM, Jan 27, 2020

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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Buys controlling stake at half price

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.

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Supporting ICTs in the islands

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.

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