By Ron Rocky Coloma
Industry leaders and experts explored the evolving digital infrastructure and the unique challenges and opportunities in the Blue Pacific region.
Pacific Trade Invest NZ hosted a webinar in October, titled "Shifting the Dial on Digital Infrastructure in the Blue Pacific," that brought together influential figures in the digital industry.
They delved into various aspects of digital transformation in the Pacific, discussing everything from telecommunication advancements and digital financial inclusion to cybersecurity challenges. Their insights provided a multifaceted view of the digital landscape in this diverse and rapidly changing region, highlighting both the hurdles and the immense potential for growth and innovation.
Phillip Henderson, CEO of Vodafone Cook Islands and vice president of the Pacific Islands Telecommunications Association (PITA), emphasized the importance of the group’s role in organizing events that bring together various stakeholders, highlighting the logistical challenges of doing business in the Pacific due to its vast and dispersed geography. PITA, a pivotal organization in this sector, has been advocating for telecom companies spread across the Pacific for 27 years.
"It's supporting the digital economies in the Pacific islands," Henderson said, identifying four key components: ICT networks, data infrastructure, digital platforms and devices and applications.
He noted that telecommunications companies primarily focus on the first two elements.
One of the main obstacles in the Pacific is the "challenge of scale," Henderson said, describing the region as "a lot of ocean, not a lot of islands, and a lot of connectivity challenges."
This scale issue, he said, is compounded by the high cost of submarine cables and satellite connections, which are often the only feasible options for many remote islands.
Henderson pointed out a significant disparity in the utilization of these resources. "Less than 2 percent of the design capacity of midlife cables is being used in the Pacific. For newer cables, the figure is less than 2 in 1,000," he said.
This underutilization, he explained, is partly due to the high wholesale cable capacity pricing, forcing telcos to purchase less capacity than actually needed.
In the Cook Islands, Henderson said, "Our objective was fiber to everywhere, self-funded."
He noted the shift in strategy to "fiber to the most economical point" due to the advent of new satellite technologies like Low Earth Orbit satellites, which are changing the dynamics of investment and return, especially for smaller operators.
Henderson also emphasized the need to adopt applications that enable digital economies in remote areas. "Our vision is to have a cashless economy in the remote islands," he said, pointing out the obstacles such as stringent anti-money laundering compliance and the need for relaxed customer verification processes in these communities."
Aayush Barot, chief business development officer at Bankai Group, highlighted Bankai's pivotal role in driving digital growth in emerging markets, particularly in the Pacific region.
He emphasized the importance of understanding the challenges and opportunities in the Pacific, a region that has been undergoing significant digital transformation.
Barot's perspective is informed by Bankai's extensive experience in telecommunications and technology, offering a comprehensive view of the digital landscape.
Delving into Bankai's contributions, Barot highlighted their work with various sectors, including governments, telecom regulators and financial institutions.
"We are deeply involved in modernizing telecommunications connectivity and digitalization across the region," he said.
One of the key highlights of his speech was Bankai's involvement in transformative projects like mobile money services and international voice and messaging systems. These initiatives, according to Barot, are critical in fostering sustainable digital growth in the Pacific.
Barot spoke about Bankai's consultative approach, focusing on creating sustainable solutions through financial engineering and investment.
"Our core proposition is to provide tailored solutions, backed by investment, especially important for emerging markets like the Pacific," he said.
This approach has positioned Bankai as a leader in understanding and addressing the unique needs of different parts of the Pacific. Barot emphasized that each area of the Pacific has distinct challenges, requiring customized solutions.
Dinesh Parihar, a notable figure in digital financial inclusion, shed light on the transformative journey toward integrating digital finance in the Pacific region.
Parihar highlighted the demographic challenges of the Pacific. "This is the most scattered demographics with a density of about 34 people per square kilometer," he said.
This low population density contrasts sharply with crowded areas like India, underscoring the unique challenges in service delivery.
However, he noted significant progress in connectivity: "With all the effort of mobile network operators and cable submarine providers, it is far connected. Connectivity-wise, it's very good."
Parihar stressed its importance in the Pacific's journey toward being an emerging market. "It's the least bank-on-bank market. The road to the digital path is clear," he said.
This path, as Parihar outlines, involves leveraging the region's growing connectivity to enhance financial services.
Tourism emerges as a critical economic pillar, with Parihar predicting significant growth: "By 2040, tourism is expected to reach around $2 billion [in contribution to GDP]."
Drawing on global experiences from the Middle East, Africa and Latin America, Parihar emphasized the importance of adapting solutions to local challenges and opportunities. "There are opportunities which can be covered by investing in technology and we can help our partners, like banks, to really close [the gap]," he added.
Digital inclusion and government collaboration are essential, as Parihar said. "Bridging the digital divide and ensuring digital inclusions can be overcome with government to person and personal to government use cases."
Alex Abraham, chief technology officer at National Bank of Samoa and a cybersecurity expert, emphasized the importance of cybersecurity: "Cybersecurity is becoming a topic of discussion in many forums. We are more connected, [but] this creates a much larger scope for attack and threat."
He noted a concerning trend of underreported incidents: "There's probably a lot that is not getting reported, which is probably the worst part of this listing."
Abraham advocates for better information and knowledge-sharing within the Pacific to strengthen cybersecurity efforts.
He outlined the core tenets of cybersecurity: confidentiality, integrity and availability of data. This triad forms the foundation of his approach to safeguarding information in the digital age.
Abraham highlighted the critical role of telecommunication networks as digital highways and their vulnerability to cyber threats: "Telcos form a very integral part of that ecosystem of how we get data and connectivity between places."
Pointing out various cybersecurity threats, including IoT device vulnerabilities and insider threats, Abraham called for robust and secure infrastructures: "We need to find ways to protect those things that are dear to us," he said.
He emphasized the need for improved governance and risk management, along with data sovereignty considerations. "Where do we keep our data?" Abraham asked." "So those are some things that, as a financial institution, we will be looking at."