History was made when it was announced this week that Cook Islands residents had connected to the global internet via the 3600 km Manatua Cable.
CI News staff were surprised to see the announcement pop up in their inboxes. Most said there were no noticeable improvements with connectivity, so this writer decided to conduct a test and play a high-definition 4K video on YouTube.
It played without delays or annoying pauses. It was revolutionary.
An exaggeration? Perhaps, but at a minimum, the Cook Islands - or at least the islands of Rarotonga and Aitutaki - have begun a digital transformation of sorts.
The question being asked by stakeholders now: can an economic transformation built on this new piece of infrastructure follow?
From dial-up internet to DSL broadband, those working in data-heavy creative trades have long been hindered by spotty and unreliable internet service.
Self-taught photographer and videographer Tokerau Jim has been dealing with it since entering content creation business roughly half a decade ago.
He says his heart is currently with shooting video. If oil paint was the vehicle to showcase the genius of a painter like Van Gough, producing video in ultra-high definition 4K allows the talents of video producers like Jim to shine.
But connectivity limitations constrain his ability or desire to shoot in 4K, he says. If a customer asks for it, he has to consider the extra costs and time required for uploading the larger video files.
And even if he delivers a 4K video project, his client will likely have to downsize the video’s resolution so it can be uploaded to social media in a reasonable amount of time and not take a chunk out of their data allowance.
In short, the broadband on offer isn’t cutting it for creatives like Jim.
“In terms of video uploads, it’s a nightmare,” he says. “I’ve found ways where I can work around it, to reduce and reduce the size so it’s still good, and the upload won’t chew up my internet too much.”
It’s also holding him back from marketing and growing his business. Showcasing his 4K video work could be a marketing tool to develop new business and find new clients across the globe.
Ranulf Scarbrough, Avaroa Cable’s chief executive officer, says: “It’s not just hyperbole, there’s good solid data behind transforming your economy by investing in connectivity and supporting small businesses through the change.”
Scarbrough might sound exuberant about Manatua’s potential for transforming an economy that has been historically dominated by tourism, fisheries, and agriculture. But that’s because he’s seen first-hand the impact that high-speed broadband can have on a poorly-connected community with limited economic opportunities.
The county of Cornwall in the United Kingdom once had an economy confined to a mining industry in decline, fishing, and tourism. “It’s one of the poorest parts of Europe,” Scarbrough says.
A decade ago, a consortium came together with an idea to transform the region and bring in jobs and opportunities. The product was Superfast Cornwall.
With funding from the European Union, British Telecom, and Cornwall county council, they set out to make the region’s residents some of the best connected people on earth. As a director of BT, Scarbrough was part of that consortium.
“With the arrival of world-class broadband, we started to see the economy diversify in a number of ways,” he says.
“We saw software development companies, we saw architects, consultants, engineers, anyone who works with people in knowledge-based activities around the world. They suddenly felt closer to them because of great connectivity.”
At least one academic study backs up his claims.
The University of Plymouth in the UK found that Superfast Cornwall led to the creation of 2000 new jobs and created $360 million in economic benefits within half a decade of its inception, with a further $120 million expected in the following year.
Scarbrough says “We also saw that traditional businesses were supercharging what they did because of the connectivity, so tourism businesses suddenly getting closer to their customers and suppliers, better booking systems, people arriving and having a better destination experience because of the quality of the broadband. All kinds of businesses re-engineering their processes, utilising the technology.”
“The Cook Islands is a world away from there, but there are so many similarities.”
But technology is half the equation, he says. “For a long time people have said that communication is not good enough, we need the cable, well, now it’s here: the question is what are we going to do with it?”
The passing of legislation by the government has brought in needed regulation and sets the industry for competition, which has the potential to allow residents to choose from a more than one service providers.
This will clear the way for a more dynamic industry, however Scarbrough says the local business community still faces a number of obstacles in harnessing the cable to create opportunities.
“I think they need more help, but what we saw back home is that the demand comes and the market follows and it all emerges.”
He says government has taken a right step with the introduction of the SMART initiative, which was included in its Covid-19 economic response package.
By offering a mix of grants, low interest loans, and tax credits to support new business ventures in the ICT sector, the government hopes to kick start an ecosystem built on the backbone of the cable.
“The cable is a great development, but there’s more to do. And how we embrace the cable is key to strategy and policy going forward,” he says.
As a development consultant and president of the Cook Islands Internet Action Group, Maureen Hilyard says the cable brings great opportunity to transform the tourism sector to one that caters to data hungry travelers.
“With many hotels being empty now, I am sure that some owners are rethinking about how they can utilise their resources to adapt to a new world of information technology and developing the Cook Islands into an information society where communication services could be the new drawcard,” she says.
Larger hotels are now well positioned to offer similar services to ones found overseas, things such as business centres with up-to-date equipment and updated conference facilities. Smaller accommodation providers can cater to a growing number of digital nomads who can work anywhere in the world, provided that trend reemerges in light of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“Improved services around the island with regards to hotspots, charging units for mobiles and laptops – these types of services have to be available if we want people to be able to use the range of internet services that could become available in a more competitive environment,” Hilyard says.
A big piece in the puzzle is price. Internet affordability has been cited as a key ingredient for creating equal opportunities and assisting the expansion of digital economies.
Currently, the only internet provider in country is Vodafone Cook Islands. Lack of choice means the company must balance the needs of the business community and the general public.
Vodafone chief executive Phillip Henderson says: “The reality is that the extra demand that we are seeing, and this is mirrored across the globe, is that consumers are going online for entertainment.”
Henderson says Facebook video, Netflix, Amazon Prime, YouTube, Tiktok, Google play, Spotify and similar online services currently make up 85 per cent of total demand. On the other hand, business and cloud based services account for roughly 10 per cent of consumption, with little expectation for additional demand in the current economic climate.
Despite the broad expectations for better affordability, he says the price Vodafone pays for bandwidth hasn’t reduced significantly with the Manatua Cable. Over time, he says their wholesale price could decrease further, but it remains to be seen if those savings will be passed down to consumers.
“We need to understand the middle of the Pacific is a long way from major commercial centers, and connectivity performance and the associated cost will always be more of a challenge then those closer to these centers,” Henderson says.
To avoid excruciatingly slow upload speeds, Tokerau Jim resorts to purchasing data on his mobile plan and creating a hotspot, which he then taps into with his laptop.
It’s a workaround that costs him more money, but a necessary one. “It’s quicker that way, compared to the Wi-Fi at home.”
He says a price break would be great, but his focus at the moment is to meet the needs of his clients. And in that respect, he has high hopes for what the Manatua Cable can offer fellow creatives in Rarotonga, Aitutaki, and perhaps Cook Islanders working overseas.
“It will open up a lot of more opportunities for us,” Jim says. “They could see it as an opportunity to come home.”