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The Limited Communication Cables for Pacific Island Countries

In: Asia-Pacific Journal of Ocean Law and Policy
Author:
Amanda H A WatsonResearch Fellow, Department of Pacific Affairs, Australian National University, Canberra, Australia, amanda.watson@anu.edu.au

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An enormous volcanic eruption near Tonga and subsequent communication difficulties have highlighted the limited extent to which Pacific Island countries (pic s) have access to communication infrastructure. This article briefly outlines the impacts of cable damage caused by the volcanic eruption. It presents two recent announcements regarding new cables for Kiribati and explains the developments that led to these announcements. Finally, and importantly, it lists the pic s that rely on just one cable and those that are yet to connect to an undersea communication cable.

In January 2022, a volcano near the main island of the Pacific Island kingdom Tonga exploded with such force that it caused tsunamis impacting nearby islands and tsunami alerts in many countries. Tonga’s capital city and many other areas of the Tongan archipelago were covered in thick layers of ash. The volcanic eruption severed Tonga’s sole undersea communication cable, which carries international telephone calls and internet traffic. This meant that people in Tonga had no internet access and were unable to make telephone calls to telephone numbers in other countries. For members of the Tongan diaspora, it was impossible to contact relatives in Tonga in the days following the eruption, causing distress and concern about their welfare.1

The recent Tongan experience has brought attention to the value of cables for pic s. It has also underlined their vulnerability to communication outages. While many journalists and commentators were surprised to discover that most of Tonga’s communications travel through just one cable, the stark reality is that Tonga is not the only pic to rely solely on one undersea cable for its communication needs. Indeed, there are pic s that are anxiously awaiting the laying of their first cable or requesting assistance to be connected. As is emphasised in this paper, the telecommunications and internet infrastructure in the Pacific region is limited and in need of coordinated strategic planning.

In mid-December 2021, the Asian Development Bank announced the landing in Kiribati of the country’s first undersea cable. This is a spur connecting the island of Kiritimati to the Southern Cross Next cable, which transports internet traffic to various locations including Australia, Fiji and Hawai‘i. The original Southern Cross cable was laid in 2000 and is owned by a private company based in Bermuda, New Zealand and Australia. The current Southern Cross Next project involves the addition of connections to Kiribati, Tokelau and possibly Samoa. The Kiritimati cable spur was funded by a grant from the Asian Development Bank to the government of Kiribati.2 While the cable landed in December 2021, internet services are not expected to be available through it until July 2022.

Less than 24 hours earlier, a joint announcement3 was made by the governments of Australia, the United States of America (US) and Japan about the funding of a new cable for Kiribati, Nauru and one state of the Federated States of Micronesia (fsm). The cable is to connect to three places that have never been connected to undersea cables: Tarawa in Kiribati, Nauru, and Kosrae in the fsm. The new cable will connect with an existing cable at Pohnpei in the fsm, which provides internet connectivity through Guam to Australia, the US and elsewhere.

The provision of internet connectivity to Nauru and nearby islands has a noteworthy recent history. The East Micronesia cable was to take a similar route to the newly announced cable with tripartite aid funding. It was to be funded by the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank and it had been expected that the cable would have been completed by mid-2021. Media reporting suggested that three tender bids for the project were received but that all three bids were deemed to be unsatisfactory.4 At that point, the project was stalled.

There has been speculation about the reasons for the rejection of the submitted bids for the stalled East Micronesia cable. The bids may not have met the technical requirements specified in the tender documents. However, media reports have suggested that geopolitics may have contributed.5 Roughly six months earlier, officials from the US reportedly cautioned the Pacific nations involved against selection of a bid by a Chinese company.6 The US officials allegedly referred to Huawei Marine and other Chinese companies, citing security concerns and in particular cybersecurity. Huawei and Chinese authorities have denied suggestions of spying and insist that Chinese companies use cybersecurity technologies that meet the required standards.7

Once it became public that all bids had been rejected, suggestions were made that a Chinese company had submitted the lowest priced bid but the parties involved did not want to proceed with that option. If that is the case, it appears that the trilateral partnership of Australia, the US and Japan that is to fund a cable following a similar route to the shelved East Micronesia cable is more palatable to the pic s where the cable will land.

Soon after the original plan for an internet cable to Nauru became stalled and before the tripartite funding was announced recently, leaders of Nauru made it clear that they were keen to have an undersea cable. One possible alternative that was considered involved the laying of a cable from Nauru in a southwards direction towards Solomon Islands.8 This would have allowed internet traffic to flow through the Coral Sea Cable System to Australia.

An ideal scenario for pic s and their peoples would be to have more than one functioning system in place for communications with the outside world, including affordable, reliable and high-speed internet. The reality though is that many pic s rely on one system and do not have a backup in place, in case the primary system is not functioning. The dependence on limited communication infrastructure was highlighted by the recent experiences in Tonga. Table 1 shows the number of international undersea cables landing in each of the pic s. It shows the pic s that are yet to connect to an undersea communication cable and those that rely on just one cable. The table includes reference to countries, territories and collectivities.

T1

Note that while Vanuatu has just one undersea cable, it has a backup system in the form of a series of small satellite dishes that can read off a geostationary satellite called Kacific. The Tongan government engaged the Kacific company to set up a similar system in Tonga following an earlier break to the country’s sole cable in 2019. However, that system was not established.9

fsm is listed in Table 1 as having two cable connections. fsm consists of four states, each of which has a main island and other islands. fsm’s two cables are to the states of Yap and Pohnpei.10 At present, a domestic cable connects to Chuuk, while the state of Kosrae is to be connected to an upcoming cable. In other words, while fsm has two international cable connections, three of its states presently have just one connection and Kosrae is yet to be connected.

Domestic cables within countries are not included in the table. Countries that have domestic undersea cables between islands and coastal towns include French Polynesia, New Caledonia, Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands. While some countries may be listed in Table 1 as having cable connectivity, it is worth noting that outer islands of those countries may not have cable access.

This paper has provided updates on recent developments, including the cable damage caused by a massive volcano near Tonga, and two announcements regarding cables for Kiribati and neighbouring islands. It has highlighted the vulnerability of the telecommunications infrastructure in the Pacific region by identifying the pic s with no undersea cable and those that rely solely on one cable. Strategic planning by Pacific governments, donors and multilateral partners could seek to address deficiencies by ensuring that each location has reliable infrastructure with sufficient available redundancy.

1

For more details, see A. H. A. Watson and G. Malungahu, ‘Volcano cuts communication with island kingdom’, Australian Outlook (21 January 2022), available at https://www.internationalaffairs.org.au/australianoutlook/volcano-cuts-communication-island-kingdom/.

2

For further information, see Asian Development Bank, ‘Arrival of submarine cable a milestone for high-speed broadband in Kiribati’, Asian Development Bank (13 December 2021), available at https://www.adb.org/news/arrival-submarine-cable-milestone-high-speed-broadband-kiribati.

4

J. Barrett and Y. Lun Tian, ‘Exclusive: Pacific undersea cable project sinks after U.S. warns against Chinese bid’, Reuters (18 June 2021), available at https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/exclusive-pacific-undersea-cable-project-sinks-after-us-warns-against-chinese-2021-06-18/.

5

For example, see ‘New undersea internet cable for Nauru, Kiribati and the Federated States of Micronesia will be funded by Australia, the US and Japan’, abc News (12 December 2021), available at https://www.abc.net.au/news/2021-12-12/new-undersea-cable-internet-pacific-australia-us-japan/100694212.

6

J. Barrett, ‘Exclusive: U.S. warns Pacific islands about Chinese bid for undersea cable project – sources’, Reuters (17 December 2020), available at https://www.reuters.com/article/us-china-pacific-exclusive-idUSKBN28R0L2.

7

‘Huawei hits back at claims it’s a national security threat controlled by Beijing’, abc News (4 June 2018), available at https://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-06-04/huawei-boss-john-lord-hits-back-at-national-security-fears/9831344; ‘Another Pacific Island rejects undersea China cable’, Solomon Times (29 June 2021), available at https://www.solomontimes.com/news/another-pacific-island-rejects-undersea-china-cable/10926.

8

J. Barrett, ‘Exclusive: Pacific island turns to Australia for undersea cable after spurning China’, Reuters (24 June 2021), available at https://www.reuters.com/world/asia-pacific/exclusive-pacific-island-turns-australia-undersea-cable-after-spurning-china-2021-06-24/.

9

For further information on the dispute between Kacific and the Tongan government, see C. Duckett, ‘Kacific waiting for Tongan contract activation to supply satellite services post-eruption’, ZDNet (18 January 2022), available at https://www.zdnet.com/article/kacific-waiting-for-tongan-contract-activation-to-supply-satellite-services-post-eruption/.

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