• By Joyce McClure

‘Slow’ is an understatement for Yap’s internet connection, so why is the FSM slowing its fiber fix?

The fiber optic cable arrived in Palau by boat this past August

at the same time that it arrived in Yap. Palau's cable is installed.

What happened in Yap?

Kolonia-- Yap’s coconut wireless is far faster than the internet. At least, that’s the common experience on this small island where it’s not unusual for an entire morning to pass while waiting for one email to crawl its way from one worker’s computer to a colleague’s computer less than six feet away. Waiting for an attachment or a linked website to open? Not likely in this lifetime. Might as well go to lunch and hope it’s open when you get back to your desk. If, that is, your email opened at all.

But “when we have fiber optic cable, life will be different,” everyone has been saying since it was announced in 2014 that the World Bank was giving FSM a multimillion dollar grant that would eliminate the island’s reliance on satellite transmission.

After a decade of the FSM government slow movement on this issue, Yap’s residents were assured they would soon have a shiny new fiber optic cable installed through the reef, under the water, hooked up and ready to use by December 2017. Everyone giddily made plans for this much-anticipated Christmas gift.

Turns out it will be more like an Easter gift when the switch is turned on in April 2018. But, with so many delays and false promises, most are expecting a rotten egg in their Easter basket instead. When talking about plans for easy downloads, instant access and the elimination of the dreaded buffering wheel, “when we get fiber optic” is now said with a sarcastic tone and met with exaggerated eye-rolling.

So what is the reason for the delay? Why is Palau, originally on the same installation timeline as Yap, up and running while Yap is not? The fiber optic cable arrived in Palau by boat this past August at the same time that it arrived in Yap. On December 7, President Tommy Remengesau pressed the button that delivered Palau's fiber optic cable system ahead of schedule and under budget. In Yap, the cable has not yet been laid from the beach landing point to the cable landing station near Colonia.

MicroGames set for Yap in July are threatened if it doesn’t get done.

The answer to the question is two simple words: Open Access. But the solution is complicated. Opening up the telecommunications market to competition is the rotten egg. One of the provisions of the grant is that Yap must allow competitors to enter the market which, according to the World Bank, will lower the rates for consumers while providing “superior service” and “innovation.” Establishing legislation and getting an Open Access Entity (OAE) staffed and up and running to oversee the implementation was never going to be easy in a place where telecommunications has historically been run as a monopoly by the government entity, FSM Telecommunications Corporation (FSMTC).

By comparison, Palau began down the same path 30 years ago with the Palau Equipment Company, Inc. and has expanded it into a “network of companies dedicated to serving the people of Palau with exceptional services from Commercial and Industrial services to broadband wireless internet.” They looked to the future; Yap did not.

In May 2017 FSM and Palau hosted a signing ceremony in Guam to celebrate the signing of supply contracts for the Yap, Palau and Chuuk cable systems with fanfare, ribbon cutting and speeches. Once again the residents of Yap watched with excitement, eager to be set free to wander around the internet unimpeded. However, it should be noted that, according to an article by Bill Jaynes for the Kaselehlie Press (10/31/17), FSM President Peter Christian, in his speech, thanked the many “experts and technicians who put together their efforts and have been patient with us who, because of our own lack of better understanding have been slow to accommodate the dictates of certain organizations like World Bank...” President Christian then acknowledged the organization by saying that he both “likes and dislikes” it before ending his speech.

Despite President Christian’s dislike of the requirements for the establishment of an OAE, Adolfo Montenegro, former CEO of BlueSky Samoa Ltd. and 20-year veteran of the telecommunications industry, was named CEO of the newly formed OAE in May and his contract was approved by the Department of Justice in October. But the OAE board, the FSM Department of Transportation, Communications & Infrastructure (DTCI) and the FSM Department of Foreign Affairs were then charged with renegotiating the contract. Montenegro reportedly was upset when it was determined that the contract needed to be renegotiated after it was approved, but he eventually agreed not to pull out and the 21-month agreement was made official November 5, 2017 with joint funding from the World Bank and OAE funds.

Montenegro’s first charge is to get the OAE up and running, which requires finalizing the budget and business and marketing plans and negotiating subsidiary and project agreements that will transfer ownership and implement of cable projects from DTCI to OAE. When that work is completed to the satisfaction of the World Bank, the OAE will need to hire staff, set up an office and bank accounts, and all of the other tasks needed to start up the new wholesaling enterprise around which open access will revolve. According to a memo obtained by the Pacific Island Times dated December 5, 2017 from Lukner Weilbacher, Secretary of DTCI, that was sent to FSM and State leaders and FSMTC and OAE board members, in the interim, administrative and technical support needs were being met by the DTCI project team while “technical, legal and financial advice is being provided by external advisors Macmillan Keck and the project’s technical project manager Gerald Tourgee.”

In addition to setting up the OAE operations, an “IRU Deed” (Indefeasible Rights of Use) that meets certain “technical requirements for transit, facilities sharing, colocation and non-compete between FSMTC and OAE” must be executed and “deemed enforceable” by the Telecom Regulatory Authority (TRA). The two entities completed walk-throughs of the facilities in each of the four FSM states in November and a “substantially revised” IRU Deed was drafted for review by OAE and FSMTC management. Final execution was projected to be completed by December 30, 2017.

The World Bank is willing to consider a partial release of the funding if certain conditions pertaining to Mr. Montenegro’s deliverables and the IRU Deed are met. A formal request to the World Bank for lifting the disbursement conditions is due January 25, 2018, the same day the IRU Deed is to filed with, and approved by, the TRA. It is estimated that another two to four weeks will be required for processing the World Bank’s approval. The remaining funds are to be released when the organization has proven that all required actions are in place. Inquiries to DTCI about the status of the request and the partial release have not been answered as of this writing.

On Dec. 6, FSM President Peter Christian met in Yap with Governor Tony Ganngiyan, the Yap State Legislature, and an assemblage of business and government leaders. On the agenda was an update by the president on the fiber optic project. “You think the money is free,” he said, referring to the World Bank grant. “But it’s not free. They’re trying to tell us you can’t do this, you can’t do that. You can only do it if you get this $200,000 consultant to tell you what to do.” Showing his frustration, the president added, “I’m ready to own it lock, stock and barrel and make regulations based on our national standards.” He was adamant that the project needs to move forward. “I have played that we are not going to wait,” he said. He stated that he wanted to get $1 million from the FSM Congress to complete the installation.

Subsequently, the FSM Congress appropriated the $1 million in order for the work to be carried out while the actions required by the World Bank are completed to their satisfaction. The appropriated money is to be paid back once the World Bank funds are released.

With the appropriation approved, DTCI is now waiting for confirmation of a bid waiver to award the work to FSMTC for the completion of the duct route and cable landing station. In the meantime, a draft contract for FSMTC is being drawn up and a request has been sent to FSMTC by Tourgee for an estimated timetable for completion of the work. Tourgee and safeguards specialist Luke Gowing of Argo Environmental, both of whom are under the aegis of the World Bank and seem to be the “$200,000 consultants” referred to by President Christian, met with local business and government leaders in Yap on June 6 and announced that the fronthaul installation would be completed by December 7 and the cable landing station ready by December 12 with service set to officially begin April 1. The fronthaul work is now one month behind schedule due to the funding holdup. NEC, the Japanese cable supplier, still needs to return to Yap to install the fronthaul equipment to the cable landing station. Then, the backhaul distribution of the fiber bandwidth from the cable landing station to the end users will be “an issue for operators.” FSMTC is reportedly working on this final part of the puzzle.

James Tobin, secretary general of the FSM National Olympic Committee, has been told that there is no schedule of work for turning on the system and Yap is still waiting for confirmation of when the cable will be laid, the step prior to turning it on. On the minds of the FSMNOC and the MicroGames Council and most islanders are the upcoming MicroGames to be held in Yap July 15 – 27.

The FSMNOC has mandated that high speed internet must be available for the many experts that they are bringing to the Games. The experts must be able to meet their professional needs. If confirmation is not received by February, those experts will not come to Yap, according to Tobin.

An estimated 1,600 athletes and coaches are also expected to descend on the small island of 7,000 inhabitants. Several hundred more VIPs, games officials, spectators, sponsor representatives and media will be added to that number. High speed internet will be required for all of them, not the least of which is the athletes who will want access to social media and email. The marketing committee will also require instant access for the media who will be covering the Games as well as for live streaming of the opening and closing ceremonies and on-the-field and on-the-court play. If it is not available by then, there will be more than a few irritable athletes and journalists on the island. Or none at all.

FSMNOC was assured that, if all conditions are met for the installation of the fronthaul equipment and work is begun “in earnest” by NEC by the end of January or early February, it “could still potentially” be completed in time for the MicroGames in July. Hopefully, the FSMTC has a backup plan for use of the satellite if the fronthaul work and backhaul distribution cannot be completed by then. But based on the unreliable and slow satellite service now in place, that will not be sufficient.

In the meantime, the coconut wireless is still buzzing with rumors and questions. It’s anyone’s guess whether the Easter Bunny will be hopping happily down the bunny trail, delivering a basketful of colored eggs in April. No one is betting on it.

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