By Joyce McClure
Yap continues to grapple with connectivity
Colonia, Yap — Although most Yapese may not own stock in corporations, all citizens of the island state of Yap own 20 percent of the public corporation FSM Telecom.
The Federated States of Micronesia and its four states, Yap, Chuuk, Pohnpei and Kosrae, are the owners of this essential organization that provides communications services throughout the nation.
As a non-profit company, FSMTC is mandated by law to use any and all funds to improve telecommunications to everyone in the country.
“We are trying,” said Bill Acker, recently appointed member of the Board of Directors representing Yap and Founder of Manta Ray Bay Resort & Yap Divers.
“It’s not just some national government entity dictating what happens here. Add this to the fact that every employee here in Yap, over 35 of them, are Yapese and highly skilled at their jobs. This,” he added, “is an organization which the people of Yap should care more about and pay more attention to.”
When Acker was sworn into his new role in April, he invited the public to meet with him, individually or as a group, to tell him about any problems they were having with the service. He set aside four hours a day, three days a week for two weeks straight. But only two households took him up on the offer.
“Both had issues mainly with the TV,” Acker said, “and it was an area that I was told we have to wait on before it is improved here in Yap. There were some other issues that I was able to work with the people and were fixed immediately. One had to do with wiring and connections and the other with cell phone reception.”
The issue of reliable, fast connectivity continues to be top-of-mind with Yap’s residents despite the installation of the fiber optic cable in 2018.
“There is an appropriation from our congressmen through the FSM Congress of some $1.2 million for fiber-to-the-home,” Acker said. “This grant named the president as the allottee, but he will not allow us to use those funds. He is convinced we should be using World Bank funding.
“We are in the process of bringing fiber optic cable to the businesses and government offices in the Colonia area using our existing funding. Several miles of cable have already been installed. The project is set to be 100 percent complete before the end of this year when everyone in the Colonia area will be on fiber optic cable. We will then proceed to the villages as phase 2, and finally connect to each house on the island.”
Acker also said the board is convinced that the Open Access Entity (OAE) that was mandated as a condition of the World Bank funding for the fiber optic cable “does not add any value, only added costs. The [Telecommunication Regulations Authority] exists to keep a level playing field. We are currently OAE’s only customer and disputing the charges they have levied against us. We have a solution that we feel works in the best interest of consumers in this new, liberalized environment, but it has been rejected by the World Bank.”
In March, the World Bank’s Board of Executive Directors announced the approval of a $30.8 million grant to improve the digital connectivity of the FSM and “support the rollout of terrestrial fiber infrastructure, connect outer islands to basic broadband services, establish the critical foundations for digital government services, and strengthen the legal and regulatory enabling environment for the digital economy to thrive in FSM.”
Acker said that “FSMTC can build our terrestrial infrastructure and own, manage, operate and maintain these assets on behalf of the government.”
He said the company is already working on these plans with available funds.
“This was the intent of the law that created FSMTC. It recognized the small market and vast distances we operate in, always keeping the people’s interests top of mind,” Acker said.
“Our local institutions and resources can handle the rest of the items in this project like, for example, security, enabling legislation for a digital Micronesia, benchmarking against best practices and outsourcing where necessary,” he added.
The goals of FSMTC are to ensure that 1) the country’s citizens remain connected to relatives and friends within the FSM and abroad, especially with flights cut off and people stranded away from their homes; 2) government stakeholders can still operate at an optimal level during the pandemic (e.g., congressional Zoom sessions, dissemination of critical information over social and other media using the FSMTC infrastructure); 3) commerce and banking can continue to conduct daily business with minimum interruption; 4) churches, NGOs and other civic organizations are able to continue their community support efforts during these challenging times; 5) reliable infrastructure supports platforms for telemedicine and tele-education.
“I see my position as being public,” Acker said, “so I am here to answer, or, probably more to the point, find the answer, to any questions or complaints that anyone in Yap has. I certainly can’t promise to have everything that is brought to my attention resolved, but I do promise to get answers for anyone having issues.”