Bringing wireless to the disconnected: internet tales from the South Pacific

"We only have dial-up here. You'd be shocked at the speeds. [Laughs.] But it's okay -- as long as I can send and reply to email, I'm fine with it."

Those were the words spoken to me just weeks ago by the absolutely precious owner of Litia Sini Beach Resort on the extreme southeastern tip of Upolu. For those unaware, that's Samoa's most populous island (~135,000 people) -- a sliver of lush, mountainous land dropped almost perfectly in the center of the Pacific Ocean. I chuckled a bit upon hearing it, immediately realizing that I had a connection in the palm of my hand that was 20, 30, perhaps even 40 times quicker than what this business owner was relying on. She paused, as if to collect her thoughts before going into a familiar spiel about the resort's amenities, and then drew my attention to the display of her laptop.

"It's still a draft for now, but this is the new tsunami evacuation plan that we're working on. Soon, we'll have this in each fale. It's taking a bit of time to get right, as the drawings are actually done in New Zealand."

I nodded my head in understanding, immediately thinking that this must be in reaction to the catastrophic tsunami of September 2009, caused by a magnitude 8.1 submarine earthquake that hit barely 100 miles from the very spot I was sitting. It was the largest quake of 2009. The entire resort was leveled. Dozens upon dozens were killed. And here we were, over two full years later, and the evacuation schematics are still in "draft."

Simultaneously, I wondered just how large that PDF was that my eyes were seeing. 1MB? 4MB? How many minutes of her day were spent downloading each new copy on a dial-up connection? How much sooner could these plans have been solidified if copious amounts of broadband internet were at her fingertips at an affordable rate? How many hours would she spend downloading the enlarged copy suitable for printing and posting as a public notice just inside the resort?

While my own mental gears were turning, a soft, cadenced slap of waves continued on behind me, fellow guests retreated to their porches with a good book, and the government of Samoa decided to kill the power to the entire village without so much as a warning. "Due to the emergency," I'm told. "We're calling soon to see about when it will be back."

Without a second thought, I pulled out a half-charged Galaxy S II and furiously Googled surrounding weather conditions for the surrounding area, looking intently as the up and down arrows beneath that comforting "H+" logo light up and go dim. Within a second, it's clear that whatever "emergency" we're dealing with doesn't involve a life-threatening act of God, and within another, I've turned the handset completely off. "I better save whatever juice is left in here," I tell my wife. "Yeah -- kind of crazy that you can get 3G out here," she replies.

As it turns out, "crazy" doesn't even begin to describe the whole of things.

Taken for granted

Samoa is just a single example of a place that provides a vivid and undeniable reminder of just how often I take the internet for granted. I grew up in a generation that expected the internet; one where the expectation of near-ubiquity was the norm. But here, thousands of miles from home and merely 80 miles from America's nearest overseas territory, the mindset is vastly different. I can't say for sure that widespread, affordable, high-speed access to the world wide web is an immediate recipe for a nation's success, but I can say that it places a country's people in a far better place than they'd be without it. Just as books are vital to literacy, the internet is now vital to economic growth and development. I've always known these things, but being planted in a place for a solid week where the internet was harder to come by than those other essentials had a serious impact on me (and not from a 'I can't play Words with Friends!' standpoint, either).

The good news, however, is that Samoa -- precisely like Fiji and so many other emerging nations -- are hopping on the internet bandwagon at precisely the right time. Rather than deal with costly hardline infrastructure -- spending millions running wire to impossibly remote villages that don't even count sealed roads as an accessible luxury -- they're skipping right to wireless. Digicel has operated a 2G network on Samoa for some time now, and in fact, I was impressed by how many Digicel billboards were advertising a simple dumbphone-to-dumbphone money transfer process that nations like America never really seemed to embrace. But money transfers are only the start.

The wireless revolution is real

When I waltzed into APW airport at some absurd hour of the morning, I was hit with a full-frontal advertising blitz. "Samoa's First 4G Network!" the signs proclaimed. The entire immigration and luggage hall was splattered with them, showcasing BlueSky Samoa's sparkling new wireless network. "Whoa, 4G in Samoa?" I asked myself. Indeed. Well, kind of. As it turns out, even the childish marketing speak that has baffled simpletons in America found a way to this island, as the network actually tops out at HSPA+. It's not LTE, nor WiMAX, but 21Mbps down and 5.7Mbps up (the maximum offered here) is not only gamechanging for the people of Samoa: it's transformational.

Unfortunately, the BlueSky office in the airport was closed for the night, but a quick drive to downtown Apia the next morning found me at a bona fide BlueSky retail store. Within 15 minutes I was in and out with a local SIM card, programmed with 200MB of data. So, there's good news and rough news here, and I'll give you the latter first.

For some reason -- economics, if I had to hazard a guess -- BlueSky is pricing its 200MB data package at SAT$80 (that's around USD$40), and it's split into two buckets: 100MB to be used from 7AM to 7PM, and 100MB to be used during the non-peak hours of 7:01PM to 6:59AM. That's mighty, mighty pricey, particularly for most locals, but this is also the company hawking a year-old Galaxy S II for SAT$2,199, or just over $1,000 in greenbacks. 200MB vanished fairly quickly when using Maps to guide myself around foreign streets, Google to find nearby attractions and Gmail to keep up with work. Moreover, the network itself wasn't entirely reliable, with a data outage lasting a solid five hours one morning on at least the eastern side of Upolo. (2G data services seemed unaffected during the period.)

Now, the good news: someone took a chance. There's probably no business case in existence that could prove a staggeringly expensive HSPA+ rollout on Samoa would be worth it, but I'm here to tell you it's worthwhile. Digicel's network in Lolumanu (where Litia Sini Beach Resort is located) can only muster GPRS data speeds. That's slower than EDGE, and in practice, it's thoroughly useless. BlueSky offers five bars of HSPA+ here, and there can't be over 100 people that call this place home. Within five years, I'm betting that the aforesaid resort owner will ditch her dial-up connection and rely solely on a BlueSky SIM to run her business -- a SIM that can travel with her across the island, right to the heart of Apia where few tourists bother to leave. In fact, that's exactly what BlueSky is hoping for; the company is straight-up marketing its newfangled technology as a true substitute to lackluster (and expensive) landline-based internet service. I know AT&T and Verizon Wireless are in no position to strain their networks in the same way, but still -- this is the future.

Priced out of reach

Just to give you an idea of how impossibly out-of-reach high-speed internet is in Samoa, let's take a look at the nation's self-proclaimed "premiere" ISP, iPasifika. The starter plan comes in at SAT$99 (around USD$50) per month, and includes -- wait for it -- 500MB. Overage fees? SAT$0.30 per megabyte. Need a few more MBs? All it takes to get 10,000 of 'em each month is a paltry SAT$1,075 (a little over USD$500), and it's probably worth mentioning that your speeds are throttled to a maximum of 128Kbps during daylight hours and 512Kbps during the night. If you need 10GB of monthly throughput for your business (evidently "business" means "1Mbps"), you can get that installed for the low, low sum of SAT$1,895. That's a small fortune to your everyday American; to many Samoans, those tallies are just laughable.

iPasifika home broadband plans, as of March 2012; prices are listed in SAT$

To wit, 4G wireless services offer a tremendous alternative to something that might as well not exist given the aforesaid price points. Imagine a world where this far-flung beach resort has the bandwidth to upload daily sunrise videos or captures of local dances to enchant potential customers. Imagine a world where the owner's internet is fast enough to enable her to reply to reservation requests in hours, not days. Imagine a world where she's able to handle all of her online duties while she sips her morning coffee, instead of the same chores dragging on through the morning. It's not just different, it's a seismic shift. I can see the BlueSky cell tower from my fale; it doesn't look like a detraction of the natural beauty. It looks like a broadcasting beacon of hope.

Economic impact

A few hours to the west sits a man and wife in Vanuatu, an isolated island chain that's only now beginning to explore the efforts of tourism. Some of the South Pacific's most excellent diving is here, not to mention dozens of varied islands with unspoiled beauty, incredibly hospitable people and leaders who are grasping with ways to connect far more than Port Vila with the rest of the world. I met them here in Samoa. They'd been in one of the more remote islands in the aforesaid nation for the past year, helping the locals to better their healthcare practices. In speaking to the gentleman about this piece, he mentioned a glistening new tourism building in the capital, replete with big-screen televisions that showcased looping videos of each island's grandeur.

"It's spectacularly useless," he quipped. "They still believe that people arrive in Port Vila and then decide which outer islands to visit. Truth is, these decisions are being made on couches in Sydney and Los Angeles, months before they ever book a plane ticket." He's right. Internet is perhaps even harder to come by in Vanuatu, where a large part of the population don't even bother with email. "Give 'em time," I think. They may have missed the broadband revolution, but the high-speed wireless revolution is at its doorstep, and I'm guessing it's just a matter of time before Vanuatu's remote villagers bypass the desktop completely and end up with something far more portable -- and in truth, more powerful.

Problems of our own

The conversation came full circle when looking at highly developed nations like the UK and America. In England, O2 will happily sell you a prepaid SIM with a few hundred megabytes of data. It's all fairly simple, really. But use over 100MB per day, and you're cut off until the next 24-hour cycle. Oh, and image uploads are horrifically compressed, so forget about tethering to get a bit of work (read: Facebooking) done. In the States, the situation is even more pathetic. Show up in any of our major airports and look for a prepaid data SIM -- go on, I implore you. It's impossible to find. Sure, a GoPhone can be picked up from any Walmart, but it's not the same. Empowering visitors with the ability to immediately have wireless, high-speed internet access as soon as they arrive within one's borders just makes business sense, and the situation is so insanely ignored by our carriers that startups like Xcom Global have been able to set up MiFi rental shops at LAX to fill the void in some tiny way.


The point? Wireless buildouts show the promise to bring the entire internet to fringes of the world that desperately need it, for fear of falling forever behind. Furthermore, I view my recent jaunts to corners of the globe that aren't quite as frequented as proof of a few things. One, the wireless explosion is still ongoing, and two, it's going to change lives in a huge way. The thought of having go-anywhere, high-speed internet access in a place like Samoa was a pipe dream just a half-decade ago. A score from now, I suspect the tourism industry and its economy on the whole will be far more developed than it is today -- and if ever the world could work out a global data roaming agreement that made sense, we'd see yet another monumental boom. Exporting and importing would no longer require phone calls and painful dealings with dial-up; but of course, that's a different discussion for a different itinerary.