An estimated 60% of the Solomon Islanders have a mobile phone, but only 15% of the population has access to the internet.
In Solomon Islands mobile phone access does not guarantee access to the internet. Satellites deliver the internet to country and that makes it very expensive to use. The cheapest broadband unlimited monthly internet subscription cost US$170 per month. That’s about 38% of an estimated average monthly income! The entry of a second mobile service provider into the market in 2010 brought down the cost of mobile phone access somewhat but did not improve the prohibitively high internet prices.
Despite the high prices, the demand for internet is increasing. Even in very remote areas of Solomon Islands people are using mobile phone to keep in touch via phone calls, texts and emails. Increasingly mobile phones are also used as a reliable gateway to the internet to communicate using social media applications such as Facebook and Twitter. Internet connectivity offers many more opportunities, and it is the development applications of internet use through mobile phones that drives the Asian Development Bank’s (ADB) support for Information and Communication Technology (ICT). Supporting inclusive growth and investment in ICT are key focus areas of ADB’s Pacific Approach which guides ADB’s operational focus in the region.
ICT in Solomon Islands offers: increased options for cost-effective delivery of public health and education services to isolated locations, it can securely link buyers and sellers on opposite sides of the globe, it can be an anti-corruption tool promoting transparency and accountability and can provide a platform for immediate disaster response. The internet’s use is only limited by our imaginations.
85% of the population lives in rural areas in widely dispersed villages. The current low availability, high cost and poor performance of internet are the major factors in widening the ‘digital divide’ and causing difficulty in delivering services and doing business in the country.
The growth of internet uptake in the country has to be seen to be believed and people’s appetite for information is voracious. Use is measured by bandwidth – currently Solomon Islands is using around 341 Megabits per second annually. Even with conservative assumptions demand is expected to be 130 times higher by 2030 at 44 gigabits per second. A good understanding of how much internet is being used now and how much demand may grow is needed to attract both public and private investments in this sector.
Solomon Islands needs an affordable, faster, and more reliable internet source to harness ICT potential. The growing demand for internet use cannot be met using the current satellite technology and demand will be constrained by the satellite’s very high cost.
ADB believes a submarine fiber optic cable connection will allow Solomon Islands to achieve its ICT potential and is working with government to make this a reality. In 2012 Government entered into a package of ADB loan and grant funds to supply a submarine cable connecting through to Sydney Australia, inclusive of a domestic link from Honiara to the outer islands of Auki in Malaita Province and Noro in Western Province.
Financing has already been obtained from the National Provident Fund and Our Telekom as well as ADB. A commercial loan and some additional ADB funding are also nearing finalization. The total project cost is estimated to be US$68 million.
The project is ready to go – The work to build and lay a cable system has been put out to tender. The implementation timetable has the cable being live in the third quarter of 2017.
This project will deliver a world-class fiber-optic cable with a life of 50 plus years. The entire length will be owned by the Solomon Islands and would position the country to sell unused capacity of the cable to neighboring countries. Capable of supplying an impressive 8,000 gigabits per second, the cable will deliver high-speed internet enabling consumers to enjoy internet use at a much lower price due to a sound regulatory regime put in place by the project to ensure the benefits are passed to the end user and not captured by middlemen.
The high speed internet services the cable will bring will effectively change the economic landscape of Solomon Islands, improve the delivery of health and education services and help businesses expand-creating jobs. People in remote locations will be able to receive diagnostics and treatment support from doctors in Honiara via the internet. Farmers should be quickly able to access market price information for their produce via the internet on their mobile phones before going to market, and shipping schedules may be similarly accessed. Access to e-learning will be easier. Imagine pursuing a training course or studying or a university degree without having to leave the village.
All of this and more will be possible with the help of a submarine fiber-optic cable system in Solomon Islands, making communications faster and cheaper, with huge gains for families and businesses.
[The author is Director, Urban, Social Development, and Public Management Division, Pacific Department, Asian Development Bank]