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Mobile, internet paradox

World Bank
Friday, August 17, 2012

A WORLD Bank report says that three quarters of the world's population now have a mobile phone. But in the Pacific, one of the most geographically remote regions, many people remain cut off. Over 90 per cent of Samoans have a mobile phone but this falls to just 14 per cent in Kiribati. Internet access in the country is among the lowest in the world: less than 0.5 per cent of the population has high-speed internet.

The Kiribati population is dispersed across several islands, spread over 3.5 million square kilometers of ocean. The majority of people in the nation's island capital, South Tarawa, are likely to have family in the Outer Islands. Flights are irregular and expensive. To get from South Tarawa to Christmas Island, you have to make a stop in Fiji, meaning to get from one side of the country to another takes over 24 hours, costing $2681, and it can take weeks to travel between the islands by ferry.

In a geographically remote country like Kiribati, communications links are valuable to the utmost. However mobile phone access is mainly limited to Tarawa; the 50,000 people who live in the 20 inhabited Outer Islands are unlikely to have a signal or an internet connection. Even those who have network coverage often cannot afford the high costs of making a call.

Tetoa Tiima is the principal of the only secondary school on North Tarawa, the closest island to the capital, with around 350 students. It is a two day boat-trip back home direct, but would normally take a week on the public ferry. One of the main challenges of his job, he says, is not being able to speak to family and friends back home. "You cannot keep in touch. You have to stand in a certain place on the island and even then the signal is very very bad and it's too expensive," he said.

For the government, a lack of connectivity creates its own challenges, including getting data, providing information and keeping in touch with other staff. Even where the infrastructure exists telecommunications are disrupted by weather, and during heavy rain communications can become virtually impossible.

Telecommunications in Kiribati are among the most expensive in the Pacific, in one of the region's poorest countries. A three minute call to the Outer Islands would cost you around $7; to Australia it would cost you nearly $17 and a 512Kbps internet connection would cost you $893 a month, with a $715 installation fee. This is a country where the average income is approximately $8.93 a day.

These services are four to nine times the price than in Vanuatu, where over 70 per cent of the population now has a mobile phone. Why is this? Both Vanuatu and Kiribati rely on satellite connections; both face similar challenges in terms of infrastructure, with numerous islands and high transaction costs. But in 2008, Vanuatu introduced a series of telecoms reforms that allowed the introduction of new service providers, subsequently reducing the costs of making calls and improving network coverage.

With the combined efforts of governments, development partners and private sector, recent support to telecommunications in Papua New Guinea and the Pacific has given over two million more people access to mobile phones, with significant improvements in service quality and much cheaper calls.

Supported by the Governments of Australia and New Zealand through the World Bank, a new ICT project is expected to support wider access to telecommunications across Kiribati. It will focus on creating a policy, legal and regulatory environment that encourages new investment in telecoms, to ensure more people are able to connect via mobile phone and internet to relatives at home and overseas, and to their business partners, and to get information.

"Of course we want access to technology," said England Iuta, Manager at the Telecommunications Authority of Kiribati. "We want to be able to use applications, we want to use these mobile phones for easy communications with the outside world - and there is more need here because of the scattered islands. For fishermen, they need to have a mobile signal, it's useful for market prices and checking safety and weather conditions, and people need access to services."

Access to communications is very highly valued in Kiribati. Theresa lives in the village of Nanikaii, South Tarawa with her husband and her two babies. "I use the phone if my children are sick and we ring the hospital, and for keeping in touch with my husband," she says. Her father is one of Kiribati's many migrant workers living overseas. "He works on a ship and is away for much of the year. He'll call us sometimes but it's really expensive, so at the moment our contact is quite limited."

Mobile communications and decent internet now offer real opportunities for development and interestingly, many new mobile technological innovations are springing from developing countries. Creative applications are enabling citizens to feedback or track service quality and development projects, report corruption and develop unique businesses, including in rural areas, while mobile banking is helping workers remit money back home and businesses to carry out transactions.

Given the unique geography of the Pacific, telecommunications reform makes a big impact. Dr Ueantabo MacKenzie is the Director of the Kiribati Centre of the University of the South Pacific. "You know it's easier to contact my wife when she's in New Zealand than when she's in the Outer Islands," he said. "At the moment I have to write a letter. Even when you're in the same country you feel so much further away."

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