Government and governance | The Pacific

12 March 2021

The telecommunication sector is crucial to the Pacific region’s development, but threats to infrastructure from natural disasters and cybersecurity issues mean the region is still vulnerable to disconnection, Amanda H A Watson writes.

The telecommunication sector in the Pacific region has experienced growth in the uptake of mobile technology since roughly 2005, fuelled by market liberalisation, network expansion, and products and services tailored for low-income customers. Nonetheless, user uptake remains below potential, with substantial variation between countries.

Internet access has remained expensive and unreliable across the Pacific, but new undersea Internet cables are increasing bandwidth availability. There is hope that Internet reliability will improve, speeds will increase, and prices will drop.

In some countries, persistent monopolies are concerning. They present vulnerabilities because the people in such locations are dependent on one company for all of their telecommunication needs. If the company experiences technical failures, becomes insolvent, or decides to leave that market, the citizens may be left with no telecommunication services.

In order for Pacific nations to maintain access to telecommunication services, they need to balance the sustainability of corporations with scrutiny of their actions through regulatory oversight. In small states, governments may not be able to effectively regulate the market.

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In general, Pacific governments and donor partners view telecommunication access as beneficial, although there are concerns about negative impacts. In particular, social media platforms are viewed with suspicion. Pacific governments have attempted to regulate social media by devising legislation to prosecute cybercriminals and in some cases have tried to restrict access or threatened to do so.

In Nauru, Facebook was blocked for nearly three years. In 2020, similar bans were proposed in Samoa and Solomon Islands. In 2018, a ban was threatened in Papua New Guinea (PNG).

For telecommunication operators in the region, there are a number of challenges, including small populations, low population density, and widely dispersed islands. The region’s telecommunication sector faces two key vulnerabilities that could threaten its long-term viability and sustainability: natural disasters and cybersecurity.

The Pacific region is prone to natural disasters and their frequency and severity are likely to increase due to climate change. These can damage infrastructure such as mobile telephone towers, leaving populations without services and proving costly for companies to repair. In addition, earthquakes have damaged undersea cables.

Cybersecurity is an important area of concern. A computer emergency response team (CERT) had been established for the Pacific region in 2011, but its operations were suspended in 2014 due to lack of funding.

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The Australian Government launched an initiative in 2018 that allows numerous Pacific nations, Australia, and New Zealand ‘to share cyber security threat information, tools, techniques and ideas’. Within the region, national responses to cybercrime ‘vary significantly’. Some countries have a CERT while others do not or are trying to establish one.

Cybersecurity has links to geostrategic competition and geopolitical tensions because Pacific countries import technology from third-party providers. Australia and several other nations have banned the Chinese company Huawei from participating in the rollout of upcoming advanced mobile networks. However, Huawei is thought of as having a ‘vital role’ and being ‘the preferred communication equipment supplier’ in PNG.

Although there are several players in the Pacific telecommunications market, the dominance of two mobile network operators means that the region is reliant upon their continued operation. Digicel’s first Pacific market was Samoa in 2006, followed by its launch in PNG in 2007. It also operates in Fiji, Tonga, Vanuatu, and Nauru. Digicel made a substantial investment to establish its mobile networks in the Pacific and build goodwill through various initiatives, including sports sponsorship and a philanthropic foundation in PNG.

Within Pacific markets, Digicel’s dominance varies – it has 92 per cent market share in PNG but only a third of the market in Fiji. Due to the debt burden of the parent company, there have been rumours of a possible sale of Digicel’s Pacific arm.

Amalgamated Telecom Holdings (ATH) is a public company listed on the South Pacific Stock Exchange in Fiji that has mobile networks in American Samoa, Cook Islands, Fiji, Kiribati, Samoa, and Vanuatu. It has received funding from the Asian Development Bank to set up a new mobile telephone network in PNG. It has a partnership with Vodafone in some markets, sport sponsorship arrangements in Fiji and Samoa, and operates a philanthropic foundation in Fiji.

Pacific governments could work together with telecommunication companies operating in the region and other actors, such as donor countries, to build more robust and secure telecommunications networks and markets. While the region faces numerous challenges, including damage to infrastructure due to natural disasters and an immature cybersecurity structure, Pacific governments must balance the need for cybersecurity with citizens’ rights to freedom of expression. By striking this balance, policymakers will enable the region and its people to stay connected.

A longer version of this piece was originally published in Development Bulletin.

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