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Several weeks ago, I came across this new Submarine Cable Map from Telegeography Research. It’s a great visualization for understanding how the underpinning physical layer of the Internet actually works. By clicking a cable on the map, you can view when it came into service, locations it connects and the companies that own it. Note that cables appearing in gray are projects expected to come online in the near future.

The map reveals a lack of infrastructure in the Southern Hemisphere while, the East Asian corridor reveals the most number of new cables coming into service.

Around the time I started writing this blog in 2006, S. Hemisphere nations of disparate size such as Fiji, Australia, and South Africa faced the same dilemma: lack of cable infrastructure resulting in very costly wholesale pricing.

Cable projects ready for service in the near future shown in gray

In that time however, Australia and South Africa have pushed forward with several new cable projects. In October 2009, Australia added the Pipe Pacific Cable-1 (Read 2009 CW Post) and has since seen dramatic reduction in Internet costs for users.  South Africa has several cable projects that will be ready for service in the near future. As a result, their consumers are beginning to taste considerably lower prices.

Meanwhile, Fiji and New Zealand, without real competition at the wholesale level lag considerably behind as seen in this table comparing budget plans:

Fiji Australia NZ South Africa
$ FJD/Mo. Data Cap $41/2 GB

(Mobile)

$55/20 GB

(Fixed Line)

$80/5 GB

(Fixed Line)

$11/1 GB

(Mobile)

Sources: Fiji, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa

This is not the best comparison as the pricing for Fiji and South Africa are from mobile service providers, while ANZ pricing is for fixed-line service. Still, it does help to paint the contrasts. South Africa is poised for major competition as one mobile provider now offers an unlimited cap service for FJD 70. 

If there is one variable that has the most effect on retail Internet pricing, it is competition in wholesale.

Barring that, only an effective regulatory intervention can bring about a more competitive outcome. It is no coincidence then that New Zealand and Australia have been at the forefront of movement to enact functional separation of incumbent operators.

Taking a closer look at the South Pacific region reveals some interesting information. If you recall, the SPIN project promised to connect New Caledonia to Tahiti, via the islands in between. It does not appear on the map and its unlikely it ever will. The Governments of Vanuatu and Tonga are investing in cables connecting to Fiji’s Southern Cross Cable connection that should come online in the next two years. Other cables that have come online in the past few years are Gondwana (New Caledonia – Sydney), Honotua (Tahiti – Hawaii) and ASH (American Samoa – Hawaii).  

Where the previous post concerned discussion of the impact on organizational culture resulting from a shift toward openness with data, the discussion here is about creating new tools for collecting data, with the purpose of aiding decision-making. 

The Black Star, shining down

Filtering through a great many articles on ICT and development, I came across the example of the mFarm initiative in an article on Ghanaweb. The project is part of a wider policy drive to increase agricultural output in Ghana.

The issues surrounding the lack of information in the agricultural food supply chain were on my mind when I had opportunity to catch up to my long-time friend, Corneliu Cotofana–entrepreneur/engineer. I described to him the difficulties growers, suppliers, and buyers contend with operating in an information vacuum and we discussed some of the policy initiatives in Ghana. Before long, we realized that there was enough of an engineering problem and policy challenge to merit a collaboration. 

reuniting to fight for food security, more dangerous than battling drug lords

So, Ladies and Gentleman, we would like to introduce our joint initiative:

Farm-e, a combination SMS and web-based market information exchange, decision-support tool, that will use technology to build the linkages to support planning, production and marketing. For the first time in Fiji, it will be possible to have a real-time birds-eye snapshot of agricultural food production at the macro level. Our mission is to have the information serve the purposes of growers, suppliers of seeds and fertilizers, buyers and exporters, and everyone involved in the policy discussion around food policy.

Across the developing world, agricultural output falls short of its potential because of a lack of linkages between the different players involved. Growers face uncertainty about whether they will find buyers for their crops. Suppliers of seeds and fertilizers are never certain how much stock to keep on hand. Buyers, made up of consumers, food processors, and exporters are at the mercy of irregular supply.

The mFarm initiative was so compelling to me because the wider policy initiatives achieved a 15-20% growth in income for farmers, while lowering transaction costs some 30%. For people with the lowest of incomes in Fiji, these possibilities represent a revolutionary, not evolutionary leap

Please remember that  the collaboration between Corneliu and I, would not be possible without the near ubiquity of mobile phones in the developing world. It’s only because this device is already in the hands of so many that we can think about how we can try to transform it from its intended purpose of social communication device to business tool.  

What’s next for us? We are attempting to secure a time slot to present at the South Pacific ICT Expo being held July 20 – 23 at USP’s Laucala campus. The Expo is being held to launch the Japan-Pacific ICT Centre. Our bid to present at the conference is an attempt to secure space in the technology venture incubator that will be housed at the research centre. 

Looking slightly further ahead, we have a rough outline of how we expect to proceed over the first year. Software development should take take 6-9 months. Toward the end of that time frame, we hope to bring in the first round of early-adopters and beta-users to help test the system and provide feedback. Once design and implementation with telecom partners is achieved, then we undertake the challenge of marketing on the national level.

We expect Farm-e to change and evolve as we work to ensure timely and relevant data is available to facilitate good decision-making by our users 

We’re also in search of a logo/mascot to make Farm-e a recognizable brand. Here are some possible contenders:

From New Zealand, there’s news of a major new cable project getting underway. Pacific Fibre, has announced an alliance with Australia’s Pacnet to build a $US400 million undersea cable between Australia, New Zealand and the US. The project might just be an opportunity for those Island nations who do not sign onto the SPIN cable project to land a submarine cable.

Meanwhile, in Fiji there are unconfirmed whispers that Telecom Fiji Limited has signed a memorandum of understanding with SPIN Cable to land the submarine cable in Fiji. I will attempt to get confirmation of this news from the CEO of SPIN.

This is promising news. Competition to the Southern Cross Cable Network is much needed. However, without a muscular regulatory framework, consumers are unlikely to see much by way of cheaper and more innovative services.

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