Politics Analysis

Telecommunications in the South Pacific is a security issue for Australia

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PM Albanese has been making an effort to repair damage done by the Morrison Government to relations with the South Pacific region (Screenshot via YouTube)

Australia has intervened to improve telecommunication systems in the South Pacific against rising tensions with China, writes Paul Budde.

OVER THE LAST few years, it has become clear that Australia and the Western countries, in general, have to become more serious about developments in the South Pacific. With China moving further and further into this region – based on rather different geopolitical international engagements – there is obvious anxiety about its policies for the region.

After the nuclear submarine debacle with France, political ties have been restored and both France and Australia have agreed to further cooperation in the South Pacific where France has several overseas territories. Also here, telecommunication is a key issue. This will be discussed in a separate article.

Telecommunication is a critical issue and the Australian Government has already twice intervened here. Once in relation to the submarine cable for the Solomon Islands (which will be discussed below) and more recently in relation to mobile infrastructure in Papua New Guinea.

Last year, we started an annual overview of the telecommunications developments in the South Pacific and this is the 2022 update that I have been able to piece together with the researchers at BuddeComm.

This week, we concentrate on the submarine developments and next week, other developments in the South Pacific telecommunication market will be discussed.

Australia’s co-funded Coral Sea Cable System now connecting the Solomon Islands

As mentioned, geopolitical concerns have come to the fore as the Solomon Islands Government pursues stronger ties with China. This is a growing source of tension with Australia, which is the Solomon Islands’ largest aid donor. In April 2022, the country signed a security agreement with China, although the full details of the agreement have not been published.

Elsewhere in the Pacific, international telecommunication connections remain a key issue. This is why the Australian Government stepped in.

As a result, the Coral Sea Cable System linking Papua New Guinea to the Solomon Islands is now also linked with a connecting cable to a landing station at Sydney. The Australian Government provided most of the funding for the Coral Sea Cable System, with contributions and support from the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea governments.

The Coral Sea Cable System is now connected to the Solomon Islands Domestic Network. This also gave a real boost to local services. In particular, internet services have improved significantly.

Mobile services have continually expanded in the Solomon Islands. 3G services became available in 2010, leading to an increase in mobile broadband uptake. The Solomon Islands currently hosts three ISPs: Solomon Telekom, Bmobile and SATSOL. Fixed broadband services that underpin the development of a digital economy are largely limited to government, corporations and educational organisations in the Solomon Islands.

Telecommunication infrastructure in the Solomon Islands continues to require significant investment due to the geographical makeup of the islands. This presents a great challenge to rural connectivity in the country.

Although various international organisations such as the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank have taken a special interest in having communication services improved in both the Solomon Islands and the Pacific region in general, internet and broadband penetration remain low. The provision of broadband infrastructure, particularly to rural areas, is also hindered by land disputes.

The launch of the Kacific-1 satellite in late 2019 also improved broadband satellite capacity for the region, though for telcos in the Solomon Islands, satellite services are now largely used as a backup for international traffic.

In recent years, the country has stabilised both politically and economically and this, along with improvements to mobile infrastructure, has led to a rise in mobile penetration and the slow uptake of broadband services. While the first Long-Term Evolution (LTE) services were launched in late 2017 in the capital Honiara, the main platform for mobile voice and data services remains 3G, while in outlying areas, GSM is still an important technology for the provision of services.

On the consumer side, spending on telecom services and devices is under pressure from the financial effect of large-scale job losses and the consequent restriction on disposable incomes. However, the crucial nature of telecom services, both for general communication as well as a tool for homeworking, has offset such pressures. The market is thus expected to continue a positive growth trajectory through 2022.

Samoan Government to take control of Submarine Cable Company

Similar to other countries in the Pacific Islands, Samoa’s telecoms sector has been inhibited by a lack of international connectivity. While Samoa has had access to the Samoa-American Samoa (SAS) cable laid in 2009, this cable has insufficient capacity to meet the country’s future bandwidth needs.

The issue was addressed with two new submarine cables that became available in 2018 and 2019. These, combined with the Samoa National Broadband Highway (SNBH), have improved internet data rates and reliability, and have helped to reduce the high costs previously associated with internet access in Samoa. In April 2022, the Samoan Government announced its decision to take over control of the Samoa Submarine Cable Company, looking to the cable to generate additional revenue for the state.

The development of the Tui-Samoa submarine cable, which was ready for service in mid-2020, as well as the Samoa National Broadband Highway, are helping to increase internet speeds and reduce broadband prices in the country.

The Asian Development Bank estimated that Samoa had a bandwidth demand of 420Mb/s in 2015 but projected that this would rise to a bandwidth demand of 6Gb/s in 2022 and 30Gb/s by 2028. To that end, the Government of Samoa is continuing its investments to bring high-speed telecom services to the country.

The Ministry of Communications and Information Technology was allocated $8.8 million in the 2021/2022 Budget. This includes provision for projects including the Samoa National Broadband Highway co-location as well as the Government’s investment in the Samoa Connectivity Project which involves the connection, via submarine cable, of Samoa to the Southern Cross Cable Network in Fiji.

This series will be continued next Wednesday discussing the significance of the Fijian economy to Australia.

Paul Budde is an Independent Australia columnist and managing director of Paul Budde Consulting, an independent telecommunications research and consultancy organisation. You can follow Paul on Twitter @PaulBudde.

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