Fiji is lagging behind the rest of the world in taking up internet broadband service, according to figures released by the Fijian Commerce Commission. But experts say the situation isn’t as bad as it seems.
Report – By Dominique Fourie.
Fiji is “lagging behind” the rest of the world in taking up internet broadband service, according to figures released by the Fijian Commerce Commission. But experts say the situation isn’t as bad as it seems.
The Fiji Times reported last month Fiji’s internet penetration rate at 30 September 2009 as only 10.9 percent, compared with smaller countries like Nuie and Tokelau, whose internet penetration levels are 62 percent and 58 percent respectively.
The figures also show New Zealand has a rate of 79.7 percent.
“Internet penetration relates to the number of people who take up broadband services,” said Robin Kelly, external communications manager for Chorus, a physical network operator for major telecommunications companies like Telecom.
Chairman of the Commerce Commission Dr Mahendra Reddy told The Fiji Times the statistics were “quite worrying”.
He says while information and communication technology can have a profound impact on the economic development of a country, ICT development in Fiji did not fare well when compared with its neighbours.
“Ranking countries in terms of internet penetration doesn’t accurately reflect broadband reach, because there are a number of factors which determine whether or not consumers choose to connect to the internet.
“The Fijian statistics would be on par with where New Zealand was two years ago. For example, in New Zealand over a million consumers are within reach of high-speed broadband, but not all of them choose to take it. They may choose cheaper options. For me that doesn’t speak to penetration. That speaks instead to what consumers are willing to pay,” he says.
Pacific population geographer Professor Crosbie Walsh says Dr Reddy’s concern was not well thought out for several reasons.
Comparing Fiji to countries like Australia and New Zealand was not comparing like with like, he says.
“More accurate comparisons would have been with larger Melanesian countries as opposed to small, relatively compact Pacific countries with significant non-local populations, and lots of New Zealand and foreign aid,” Dr Walsh says.
Professor Walsh says affordability and electricity connectivity are also issues.
However, the Price and Access Determination for Southern Cross Capacity and Network report from the Fijian Commerce Commission released in June this year stated ICT penetration in Fiji remains at an early stage of development.
The report shows Fiji has 151 bits per second a person while countries like Barbados have 1766 bits per second a person.
Fintel is Fiji’s international telecommunications provider. It is majority owned by the Fiji government in partnership with a UK company Cable and Wireless Plc.
In 1999, Fintel signed an agreement to land the Southern Cross cable network in Fiji.
Fiji is one of ten countries directly linked to the Southern Cross Cable, a trans-Pacific network of telecommunications cables commissioned in 2000.
This network connects New Zealand, Australia, Hawaii and Fiji to the heart of the internet on the west coast of America.
“The Southern Cross Cable only acts as a pipeline into the greater internet, but it doesn’t actually connect people on,” says Kelly, explaining Fiji’s access the Southern Cross cable was not of any particular advantage in increasing the number of people accessing the internet.
Communications Fiji Limited managing director William Parkinson also suggests the figures released by the Commerce Commission do not accurately reflect actual internet access, for a few reasons.
“Because a larger percentage of the population in Fiji is in formal employment there is a much higher degree of internet access via the workplace. Also, as Fiji is a more urbanised society with a better developed commercial sector, access via internet cafes is much wider than any other Pacific Island country. In fact, I would suggest for the bulk of urban internet users this is the main way they access the internet,” says Parkinson.
Shabir Ehmed, owner of Cybercity Internet Café in Labasa, agrees.
“At my café, we have people right from 10 years to over 60 years surfing the net. I have 12 workstations and they are always busy. Around half of my customers might have internet at home, but broadband is only connected in the town radius, which is around 6km. If they’re out of that radius they won’t get broadband,” he says.
That is also the case in New Zealand.
“In New Zealand, broadband is limited by distance. If you’re anything further than 5km away from the equipment that provides broadband, you may as well have dial-up,” says Kelly.
The equipment Kelly refers to is telephone exchanges on the ground, which connect to telephone lines in the home through copper cables. The broadband signal weakens as it travels along the cooper cable, so the distance from your house to the nearest exchange becomes a factor in the speed of your connection.
Professor Walsh says: “Fiji is a Third World country of many widely scattered islands. The internet is used mainly by well-off urban people. Very few others can use the internet because they are too poor.
“Some 45 percent of urban and rural households are below the poverty line. Buying a computer would be at the bottom of their priority list.
“Further, many parts of the country lack electricity. In 1996 only 62 percent of households had electric lights, and most of these were in urban areas. The situation has improved since but large areas of the country still lack electric power. No power equals no computers which equals no internet. Where electricity is available, it is costly and the priority seems to be TV and cell phones.”
Unwired is one of three internet providers in Fiji, along with Connect! and Kidanet.
Jignesh Chauhan, sales and marketing manager for Unwired, says the statistics are not surprising, and there are many reasons for Fiji’s low level of internet penetration.
“One of the biggest reasons is the difficulty people have in accessing a computer. Internet is only secondary, you need a computer first. In Fiji you’ll find the rate people take up new technology is pretty fast, and the continuous lowering of prices on PCs and laptops in the marketplace is slowly taking hold.
“It has to do with sustainable income levels. For broadband, you’re talking anywhere from $30 to $100 a month depending on what kind of data package you want. Then you need the ability to maintain that kind of payment.
“The take-home pay for anyone able to afford an internet connection needs to be around $20,000 a year, and in a Fijian context you might need at least four people working in the home to get that kind of salary a year.”
Professor Walsh agrees.
“I would imagine that all businesses in Fiji have internet access, so their penetration rate would be 100 per cent. My guess is that the penetration rate among educated middle class urban households is not too different from New Zealand, and where such people lack access at home, they will have access at work.”
The socio-economic situation in Fiji is a major force behind the number of people still not connected to the internet, and Chauhan says while the middle-class market is ideal for this kind of business, in Fiji this is still a small market.
It’s made even smaller by the worrying “brain drain” that is happening in Fiji at the moment according to Chauhan.
Dominique Fourie is a Postgraduate Diploma in Communication Studies student on the Asia-Pacific Journalism course at AUT University.