The connectivity gap in the Pacific
Connectivity is no longer a privilege but is now a necessity. The Internet provides access to financial services, like online banking; educational resources for students, including online courses; and tools essential for work and business, such as email. Internet access is of great importance to residents in Pacific Islands that lack resources due to their remoteness.
According to data collected by GSMA Intelligence, a source of mobile operator data, analysis and forecasts and publisher of authoritative industry reports based in the United Kingdom, a connectivity gap exists in the Pacific Islands that might leave millions without access to mobile data.
This connectivity gap would limit limited these island residents’ “ability to participate in the digital economy and take advantage of the opportunities it can offer,” GSMA Intelligence stated.
In a report entitled “Mobile Economy of the Pacific Islands 2019,” GSMA Intelligence collected data from 23 countries and territories across Micronesia and Polynesia to include, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, the Republic of Palau and Marshall Islands.
According to the report, just 38 percent of the Pacific Islands population were subscribed to mobile service in 2018. The Pacific Islands region trails behind the broader south-east Asia Pacific regional average of 68 percent of the population subscribed to mobile service.
The 38 percent of mobile subscribers comprise some 4.5 million unique subscribers. This is expected to increase to 5.8 million unique subscribers by 2025. A unique mobile subscriber is an individual person that can account for multiple mobile connections, like SIM cards.
Revenues are expected to increase from $1.14 billion to $1.22 billion in 2025.
There has been a shift to mobile broadband from wired internet, which, according to the report, reflects an increase in smartphones. GSMA Intelligence attributes this shift to the declines in smartphone prices and the emergence of new, low-cost smartphone vendors.
Smartphones make up 30 percent of total connections and is forecast to skyrocket to 65 percent by 2025.
However, mobile internet penetration in the Pacific Islands is the lowest of any region in the world. According to GSMA Intelligence, this more than 9 million people in the Pacific region will still be offline.
In our corner of the Pacific, unique subscribers, connections and subscriber penetration in the separate countries and territories are as follows, in order of subscriber penetration:
GSMA Intelligence’s data on our cluster of islands reflects the broader trend for varying rates of mobile connectivity from island to island.
Though the FSM has the second largest population in the group, its mobile internet penetration rate is only 17 percent.
Palau, which has a far smaller population compared to the FSM, has the highest mobile internet penetration rate in this group.
The Marshall Islands, which has roughly the same population as the NMI, has far lower subscriber penetration, connections and unique subscribers.
To bridge the connectivity gap, there will need to be major investments in infrastructure improvements.
According to GSMA, most Pacific Islands lack “properly developed innovation ecosystems due to the limited size of the individual markets, the complexity of developing sound infrastructure between the archipelagos and the significant leverage of larger regional hubs in Asia Pacific.” Roughly half of the countries and territories have only one mobile operator. Low population totals and densities make it difficult for more than two mobile operators to service a majority of Pacific Island countries or territories.
More importantly, there should be more collaboration between successful communications hubs in the region. Guam, for instance, hosts a dozen or so undersea cables that carry terabytes of data between Asia, the United States and Australia.
Our island nations are scattered across a great expanse of ocean and vary in culture, language and political status. The big question is, as we welcome the new decade, how can the Pacific Islands overcome these differences to bridge the gap so that all Pacific Islanders can stand on equal footing with the rest of the world?
Jay R. Shedd is Senior Director of Sales, Marketing and Customer Service at IT&E, the largest wireless service and sales provider in Guam and the Marianas. He has more than 30 years of experience in the telecommunications industry.