Everyone agrees that we would like cheaper, faster, and more reliable internet here in the Cook Islands. Where public consultation and sound technical analysis is needed, is on how best to achieve this, as there are different and better options.
In April 2017, the government announced it had signed an agreement to proceed with a submarine cable system (SCS) called the Manatua Cable Project for the Cook Islands, that would come online between 2019-2020.
In light of developments that have taken place in the telecommunication world in the last few years this is now a very poor solution to our aims.
1. The cost of the cable (estimated at around $30-60 million) is still not known well enough to do a proper financial analysis of whether it represents reasonable value for money. It would be foolish to commit the country to a massive debt on so little information.
2. Prices for standard user plans are extremely unlikely to drop in the near term. The cable owners (the Cook Islands government) still has to pay off a huge ($15 to $20 million) loan, maintenance costs for cables are at least $1 million a year, data over cables still has to be bought by internet service providers, and there is still the cost of providing the service from the point where the cable lands to all the households and businesses around the island.
3. The Pa Enua will not have any access to improved connection from this investment of up to $50 million, as the cable will only go to Rarotonga and maybe Aitutaki.
4. The need for the cable is virtually non-existent. The present O3B satellite system delivers everything essential (telehealth, education, online banking, social media, voice calls, etc.) a cable would, using a system which is already paid for. There is almost no demand from any sector of the economy for the very marginal improvements a cable might bring. Higher speeds and larger data caps are being sought for non-essential things like movie watching on Netflix or streaming TV series and similar activities.
5. The technology is about to become outdated. The new OneWeb satellite constellation of about 750 satellites will become operational in 2019 and will make cable totally unnecessary. Have a look at this website to see how serious this is http://oneweb.world/ . Google, Space X and Facebook are also developing universal internet systems. To ignore these solutions to our goal for cheaper, faster more reliable internet, and invest in an expensive and dated technology which will also only become operational in 2020 is foolhardy.
So what is the solution? The rational approach is to not to rush into the cable investment because of a 2013 report, or succumb to the “we want a new toy and don’t care how much it costs” mentality that a few encourage. There is no downside to waiting to see what the next one or two years will bring in terms of cheaper, faster and better internet without borrowing and spending $30-50 million on out of date technology which will not even benefit any of the Cook Islands but Rarotonga and Aitutaki –and furthermore - only a very limited number of people on those islands, in a very limited way.
I have sent this report to numerous government and Opposition and civil service officials and private individuals. There has not been one response from those currently proposing to acquire the cable, to properly answer the questions posed both by myself and by others, or even to debate the conclusion that rushing to invest in a cable at this time is not remotely viable or advisable.
At a meeting with the IT advisory group to the government, I was told that two unnamed “experts” had advised that the numbers looked “very promising” for the cable project.
However, when I asked to see these “wonderful” numbers I was informed that they were not allowed to be released due to “confidentiality” clauses. A request to the ICT unit at Office of the Prime Minister to see the tender documents sent to companies tendering for providing the cable was rejected on grounds of “commercial confidentiality”
This lack of transparency and protection of commercial interests is not perhaps the best approach when spending $30 to $50 million of public money! This is reminiscent of the approach that resulted in previous economic disasters like the Toagate saga and the Sheraton debacle. I hope that “Cablegate” does not become the newest catchphrase for a self- inflicted financial disaster
There are some direct questions that it is absolutely necessary for any one proposing that the cable goes ahead must answer, they include, but are not by any means, limited to; the following:
1. Has recent research been done on whether there is an urgent need for a cable connection?
a- If “yes” – when was it done and by whom?
b- And why has it not been made public?
c- If “No” then why not?
2. Can you provide real world evidence of how a cable will provide any appreciable tangible improvements to the economic or business performance of the Cook Islands? e.g. increased local employment or enhanced business or tax revenue as opposed to what we now have (O3B) and what we know is coming in two or three years (OneWeb, SpaceX etc.)?
3. Who are the “experts” employed to advise government. and what are their industry connections and qualifications? Are their recommendations and reports going to be made public? If not –why not?
4. Has the IT committee which advises the ministers issued any written or verbal recommendations to Govt. re the cable? If so, what resources did they use? Where are the reports?
5. What percentage of the project is funded by the Cooks and what is the shareholding arrangement that has been entered into with the other entities involved?
6. When will the “winning” tender for the cable construction be chosen from among the 3 “finalists”? The tenders closed on March 14. Why is this, and how could it take over two months and counting to choose a winner?
7. Is it still possible for the government to withdraw from the Manatua Cable project, even though they have signed some sort of agreement with French Polynesia, Niue, and Samoa? If not, then why such a huge commitment was made with no public consultation at all; and before the costs had even been “vaguely” finalised? If it is still possible to withdraw and it is not desired by the government to do so, then will a well-researched business plan for such a massive investment and undertaking be forthcoming? If not – why not?
I would like to reiterate that I have not done this report for it to become a political “football” (I sent it impartially to all the parties and politicians I could reach), and that I have absolutely zero financial, political or other interests in the cable or telecommunications industries or projects.
I am motivated solely by my desire to see the best outcome for all of the people in the Cook Islands in the light of the newest advances in telecommunication technologies.