Smart Islands Initiative: An affordable, accessible digital future for Pacific communities
13 December 2021
It is no secret that many countries in the Pacific region suffer some of the highest costs of broadband internet.
The Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea and countries within Micronesia pay the highest prices globally per gigabyte of internet.
Often, the great cost is not met with its equal in access or speed – internet remains slow and capped at low monthly averages.
On the surface, this might translate as interrupted access to Facebook and Twitter and perhaps an Instagram story that never uploads, but the impacts caused by sky-high internet costs in developing Pacific countries prone to natural hazards go much deeper.
It can result in serious developmental challenges, especially exacerbated during disasters or, as we’ve now witnessed, a pandemic. In the Pacific’s case, it has been both, with disasters prefacing the second wave of COVID-19 in many Pacific countries and with the November-April cyclone season on the way.
Socioeconomic challenges posed by COVID-19 have aggravated existing costs of connecting remote islands, lack of human and financial resources, inadequate digital skills and high costs to access these services. Affordable broadband access can help Pacific countries recover faster from COVID-19 and accelerate their achievement of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
This challenge presents an opportunity to bridge the communication divide through targeted support, cooperation, and partnership – a partnership which is spearheaded by thoughtful change and centered around people.
In April 2020, category-5 Tropical Cyclone Harold hit several Pacific countries, leaving a trail of destruction in its wake. Harold claimed lives, crushed homes, and destroyed sources of income for thousands of Pacific peoples, particularly in Vanuatu and Fiji.
In anticipation of one such disaster back in 2014, the United Nations, with the leadership of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU), undertook a satellite connectivity project in nine Pacific countries, including Fiji, Kiribati, Micronesia, Nauru, Papua New Guinea, Samoa, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu with over 90 satellite ground terminals were provided including C-Band, Ku Band, and Ka band terminals.
This project installed satellite ground stations to provide connectivity to communities within these Pacific countries and made disaster response operations possible in the aftermath of Harold.
With affected countries having instituted COVID-induced national lockdowns, physical response to Harold was near impossible. However, the satellite capabilities established in some of the affected communities were able to connect communities to the outside world and aid disaster response efforts as they were the only means of communication.
This also allowed communities to capitalize on the connectivity for non-emergency communication and socioeconomic activities, such as connecting schools, health clinics, and government offices.
Our investment in infrastructure and the partnership we share with the Pacific people has changed the pace at which island communities can now recover from disasters and reduces the cost of building back better.
Fast forward to now - people in these communities are learning how to access and use digital services and applications, such as mobile banking, e-commerce, e-agriculture, e-health, among others.
This cost-cutting concept, which supports access to affordable connectivity in Pacific communities most in need of it, is known as the Smart Islands initiative – and it is designed to accelerate the achievement of the SDGs in the Pacific, with under a decade left to go.
The SmartIslands initiative enhances broadband availability and affordability across communities, providing opportunities for digital skills development and access to digital services, which are essential to SDG targets.
By digitally empowering Pacific communities through the Smart Islands initiative, the development trajectory of Pacific Island Countries will no longer be defined by geographical barriers and isolation, but rather, by the plethora of opportunities for education, healthcare, business, livelihood, and employment, among others.
This initiative, now starting in Vanuatu, has gained increasing traction among Pacific Island Countries and the UN is developing Smart Islands initiatives that will capitalize on various UN agencies’ expertise and support governments to fully roll out Smart Islands initiatives in the years to come.
In order to make Smart Islands a reality throughout the Pacific, an evidence-based, whole-of-government, multi-stakeholder approach is essential.
By collaborating and harmonizing the development and provision of digital services, Pacific ministries and government agencies can create economies of scale, and the private sector may expand its connectivity and upgrade network capacity.
Civil society and community organizations are key interlocutors in articulating community needs.
This has the potential to pave the way to accelerate the introduction of emerging technology, such as big data and artificial intelligence, once communities are connected and the multitudes of data are collected to enable data analysis.
Investing in a digital future for our sisters and brothers in the Pacific is a no-brainer – but it will only happen if we continue to form these crucial partnerships, placing people and sustainable change at the centre and ensuring no one is left behind.
A joint op-ed by Sanaka Samarasinha & Atsuko Okuda