National ICT Days are once again upon us, and the Daily Post is proud to be participating. We’ve been selected as a finalist for the ICT innovation award, thanks to an interactive tourist information product we built in collaboration with vSolutions. It’s a great example of the technological innovation, skill and ingenuity that has blossomed in Vanuatu of late.
Those who know me know that I was a geek long before I became a journalist. I came to Vanuatu with the mission to develop the capacity among civil society actors to use technology to achieve their various missions.
Fast forward a decade and a bit, and Vanuatu has every right to be proud of its standing, not only relative to other Pacific island nations, but in the developing world at large. A small but very capable group of professionals has managed to create a minor miracle in this country: a forward-looking advanced plan to get internet access to the entire country.
But at what price?
Vanuatu’s Universal Access Policy is ambitious, to say the least. By January of 2018, private and public sector players have agreed they will make broadband internet accessible to 98% of the population.
The devil, as always, is in the details. While we are remarkably progressive in terms of broadband accessibility, we rank among the hindmost when it comes to affordability.
The submarine internet cable was supposed to change that. It kind of did, but not enough. Prices came down, relative to the king’s ransom that was satellite service, to mere highway robbery.
Vanuatu is overlooked in the Alliance for Affordable Internet’s Internet Affordability Index. But if we apply the same metric as they do when looking at our internet prices relative to per capita GDP, we don’t compare well at all.
One industry insider recently lamented that their 4G rollout were more a labour of love than anything else, because data costs were such that the average consumer could run through a month’s worth of spending on less than an hour’s internet use if they weren’t careful.
This is the opposite of where we wanted to be. A few years ago, the Telecommunications and Radiocommunications Regulator, or TRR, stated that his office was seeking to create what he called an enabling environment. [Full disclosure: I was engaged in voluntary work assisting with internet policy development for the TRR at that time.]
The idea, fundamentally, was to find ways to price and sell internet bandwidth such that people were encouraged to consume more, rather than to parsimoniously dole it out byte by byte. For the wealthy, we succeeded. If you have a few tens of thousands of vatu burning a hole in your pocket each month, you can watch all the Youtube you want, browse Facebook non-stop, and pop out Instagrams and Vines without a second thought.
But your less-wealthy neighbours are never going to see them. Prices for a home fibre connection at what anywhere else in the world would be a measly 4Mbps still range north of VT 30,000 per month.
But don’t blame the telcos. The bottleneck is our submarine internet cable.
Let’s be fair: the US$30 million spent on constructing the cable had to come from somewhere, and ultimately, it was always going to be you and me who paid. There’s a large risk factor in this kind of investment, and those who took it deserve to be rewarded.
But the bottom line is this: the bottom line just isn’t working. Prices are too high. Last week, we heard rumours about the government network being threatened with cut-off because of payment disputes with their supplier.
Industry reps are quietly grumbling too. The Daily Post has received reports that some executives are taking a second look at their contracts to see if there’s any way out of them.
Something has to give. We got to where we are through rough and ready cooperation and healthy—again, healthy—competition. But it’s not enough. We need a rethink, and a renegotiation, of the terms on which we build our ICT development.