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Why Getting Pacific Island Nations on the Internet Is Difficult

And why telecommunications executive Denis O’Brien—the 219th richest person in the world—thinks Google and Facebook should start financing the buildout.

By Rick Paulas


(Photo: tekkebln/Flickr)

To understand some of the connectivity problems around the world, it makes less sense to think of the Internet as — with apologies to the late Ted Stevens — a literal series of tubes. Before you get online, physical infrastructure needs to be in place. That means laying down cables from one point to another, a task accomplished through underground pipelines and overhead cables. This is relatively easy to do when hooking up land, but a hassle when hooking up a bunch of islands.

Underwater Internet cables connecting two points are laid in a two-pronged method. On the surface, a ship unfurls a cable below. On the seabed, a plough creates a trench and places the cable inside of it. That costs a lot of money. Estimates are hard to come by, because every project differs along several variables: the technology being used, the terrain, cable lifespans, sharks, and whether any saboteurs have donned dive suits to create anarchy. But when you’re talking price, you’re talking hundreds of millions per project.

“[P]eople like Google and Facebook say it’s a basic human right that people should have access to the Internet. Yeah, but who’s fucking paying the bill? They’re not.”

Here is a map of all the underwater cable lines out there. Tracks between America and Europe are plentiful, as are those between the Pacific coast and Asia. The Caribbean has a splattering of dots, indicating ports of connectivity. When you look at the Pacific Ocean, there are cables that pass through, but the dots are few and far between. This, despite there being between 20,000 and 30,000 islands out there in the vast blue.

Why is it so tough to get Internet to the Pacific islands?

“You can build a fantastic LTE network in Nauru or Samoa or Tonga,” says Denis O’Brien, founder of Digicel, a mobile provider for islands in the Caribbean, Central America, and Pacific. “But the cables are so expensive, you’re paying 20 times the U.S. price, maybe 10 times the Caribbean prices per megabit.”

And when O’Brien says something is expensive, he means it. According to Forbes, he is the 219th richest person in the world, with a net worth of $6.1 billion.

Pacific islands are more spread out than those in the Caribbean, meaning more miles of cable. And populations are far more sparse, so the financial incentive to build the technology out to a new group of people isn’t as apparent. (A good example is the Kingdom of Tonga, which has 169 islands, 36 of them inhabited, spread over an area which is the size of Texas. The Lone Star State has almost 27 million residents, Tonga has a tad more than 100,000.) In other words, it’s the same version of the digital problem facing rural areas, but with miles of ocean to contend with as well.

And those aren’t the only issues. Unlike land-based countries with municipalities that handle large sections of land, the Pacific is full of tiny autonomous nations, each with their own particular government to negotiate with. As O’Brien tells it, most have a lone government-appointed agent who acts as an unchecked gatekeeper for which telecommunication company gets in, and for what price. “Monopolies have completely screwed up the situation,” he says.

But to O’Brien, the more infuriating villains are the ones living in Silicon Valley.

“[P]eople like Google and Facebook say it’s a basic human right that people should have access to the Internet,” O’Brien says. “Yeah, but who’s fucking paying the bill? They’re not.”

O’Brien believes companies like Google and Facebook should offer a share of their revenue to the telecom companies building out infrastructure, the ones allowing their products to exist in the first place. “It’s like we’re building a railway line and then no one is paying,” he says. “It’s like these guys come and have a party in your house, drink your wine, kiss your women, and leave.”

“It’s like these guys come and have a party in your house, drink your wine, kiss your women, and leave.”

(Here’s a good place to mention Google’s Project Link, which has been getting plaudits for bringing fiber and Wi-Fi links to poor metropolitan areas in Africa. This also happens to piggy-back on the underwater sea cables that have been laid down by telecom companies, which get few moments of love from anyone, ever.)

A lot of this can be seen as business-minded bluster. But, more importantly, it has no real precedent in the realm of medium-to-content provider relationship. While cable companies began by simply re-transmitting broadcast networks to rural areas, they morphed into their current (overpriced) model once they began paying networks to create content for subscribers. In other words, they wanted to sell the idea of laying down more cable infrastructure, but they needed something that people wanted to spend money on.

The Internet is, of course, different. If a cable channel shut down, consumers would just flip to another or get entertainment elsewhere. But Google and Facebook have become part of how people perceive what the Internet is. Sure, if either of those digital behemoths somehow shuttered, another social network or search engine would just rise in its vacuum. But those two companies have gotten so huge and tipped the scales in such a big way that it is unprecedented. As cable channels multiplied, each carved out a section of the audience; as the Internet reaches more users, portals like Facebook/Google take on an even greater role in consolidating them to one place. So it only makes sense telecom companies are trying to shake some coins out of their pockets.

“They just take the money back to Silicon Valley and give everyone the finger,” O’Brien says. “They say, piss off, we’re not going to pay you, but please keep building your network, keep laying your fiber, lay more submarine capacity to carry our lovely traffic.”

This fight is also portentous in that the shrapnel is bound to hit any digital company making money from advertising. “All the major mobile operators in the world are pissed off, so we’re going to get radical and fix this once and for all,” O’Brien says. How? A revenue blockage through ad-blocking software that would, theoretically, force companies like Facebook and Google to negotiate.

And while this battle (or, more accurately, one side trying to goad the other into a fight) rages, areas of the world like the island nations of the Pacific continue to contend with little, if any, service. Is the Big Telecom vs. Big Internet fight—rather than market forces like high cost/low rate of return—really driving a slower roll-out? Of course not. But as long as the islands continue to be underconnected, the companies laying down the lines will be able to point the finger in the direction of Silicon Valley and say, “now it’s their turn to do some work.”