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Beyond the wire: connecting Tonga

Tom Perry's picture

Billboards announcing the arrival of high-speed
broadband internet being installed in downtown
Nukua'lofa, the capital of the Kingdom
of Tonga.

Hoko (‘connect’ in Tongan) is the current buzzword on the streets of the Kingdom of Tonga.

With May 17th recognized around the world as World Telecommunication and Information Society Day, the Tongan capital Nuku’alofa is a hive of activity as telecommunications providers set up their activities to mark the day.  The billboards have gone up, teenagers have been lining up at auditions to become the new public face of the marketing campaign for Tongan internet, and the Prime Minister, Lord Sialeʻataongo Tuʻivakanō is planning a public Skype session with Tongan soldiers currently serving in Afghanistan.

If there is any year the Kingdom of Tonga would be justifiably excited about its telecomms story, 2013 is it. As one of the most remote island nations on the planet, the impending arrival of high-speed, fiber-optic broadband internet – made possible through the World Bank-supported Pacific Regional Connectivity Project, an 830km-long cable being connected between Fiji and Tonga – means that everyone is talking of hoko.

I spoke to a number of people about the experience with internet in Tonga and how broadband internet would affect their lives.

Dr Paula Vivili, Acting Superintendent, Vaiola Hospital

For Dr Paula Vivili the arrival of high-speed broadband will
have major impact in Tonga's health system.


As the only eye surgeon in this nation of 100,000 people, Dr Vivili’s time is in high demand; something that isn’t helped by the hospital’s unreliable internet connection.

“It’s a challenge, trying to work with our current internet,” says Dr Vivili. “I regularly send images, patient records or requests for a second opinion to specialists in other countries. Often when I send the email, I come back in a few hours later or the next day, and it will still be in my outbox.”

“When we rely on a second opinion from a specialist overseas, it is frustrating, and ultimately, it puts the patient’s opportunity for quick treatment at risk.”

Dr Vivili says that for he and the thousands that work in Tonga’s health system, the arrival of broadband represents a big step forward.

“Clinics in remote areas – where a ship will visit with supplies maybe once every six weeks – will be able to access medical records, and work with us here in the capital, or with specialists overseas to provide proper treatment for patients.”

“Video conferencing has big potential for us, particularly as a remote island nation. It will mean international specialists can join us and provide immediate advice and input during an operation, and will reduce some of the pressure on our team here.”

 

Loluhama Mausia, Teacher, Tailulu College

Loluhama Mausia says broadband internet will ensure
Tongan students have the same opportunities as others in less
remote countries.


Hama says that as a teacher, she has learned to adapt to the unreliability of internet services in Tonga.

“You always need a Plan B here,” she says. “Too often, our classes can’t happen as we plan them. We want to make sure our students have the best chance, and it can be frustrating.”

When I asked Hama what the arrival of broadband in Tonga means for her personally, she immediately reflects on her family, a common response in this country where an estimated 300,000 Tongans are currently living overseas.

“Most of us in Tonga have family living overseas. The internet is our connection, our way to keep in touch with each other and keep what is most important to us.”

She pauses for a second to consider her words.

“We may be isolated,” adds Hama. “But now we won’t be disconnected.”

 

Minolu Nishi Jr., farmer

Farmer Minolu Nishi says high-speed internet will provide
​ huge opportunities for Tongan farmers.


Minolu Nishi Jr. is the owner of Nishi Trading, a family-run farming and export operation sending Tongan-grown produce, such as watermelons, squash and butternut pumpkins, to kitchens in Australia, New Zealand, Japan and Korea.

He says that the current internet services mean that Tongan businesses, which already face major challenges due to the country’s remoteness, have a tough time trying to do business overseas.

“The joke in Tonga is that it’s cheaper to buy a car than to have the internet for three months,” he says.

Minolu says that the potential for what reliable, high-speed internet can provide Tongan businesses is huge.

“Our accounts, records and sales will all be online, and we’ll be able to have face-to-face conversations with international buyers. I can see our growers using smartphones to manage any pests in the field – photographing them, identifying them and then learning how to deal with them, quickly.”

“It means our farmers no longer have to go overseas to further their knowledge,” he says.

 

Heimoana Ali, tapa producer
Heimoana Ali is the operator of Living Mercy, a women’s collective that produce tapa, a traditional fabric woven and worn by Tongans at home and abroad. Made by hand, the production of tapa is considered a fine art in Tonga and other parts of the Pacific, and Heimona Ali has seen the potential for its export overseas.

Working with nearly 50 Tongan women, Heimona sees huge potential in the internet in helping get the group’s work out to the world, yet feels hamstrung by the country’s current internet service.

She says that in a lot of cases, she is forced to make expensive international overseas phone calls to confirm orders.

“Calling on the phone is very expensive, but we really have no choice. If any of us try to use the internet at night, it is so slow, it is very hard to use it at all.”

“I hope this new service brings change, and makes things easier,” she says. “We are making some special tapa here, and we’d like the world to see it.”

With just a few weeks until the arrival of broadband in Tonga, many locals, just like Dr Vivili, Hama Mausia, Minolu Nishi and Heimoana Ali, are all looking forward, creating their own ideas of how they will make the most of Tonga’s new connectivity. For many thousands more, it’s the fact that these ideas are just the tip of the iceberg that is the most exciting.

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