Wednesday, November 28, 2007

The times they are a-changin’

Bob Dylan’s 1963 classic The Times They Are A-Changin’ well applies to what is happening to Papua New Guinea’s Information and Communications Technology (ICT) landscape.

Back in 2005, when mobile phones were still in their infancy, I spoke to Pacific Mobile Communications’ managing director Noel Mobiha about the use of mobile phones and the Internet.

How times have changed since then with the arrival of new kid on the block Digicel, however, we lag behind in Internet with the outdated and exorbitant Tiare Gateway.

“…you better start swimmin'
Or you'll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin'.”

Below are excerpts from the article that I wrote in July 2005 for the 30th anniversary of our Independence:

Many technical innovations have hit Papua New Guinea since Independence 30 years ago.

Record players were replaced by cassette players, which were in turn displaced by CD players.

Radio, once the most-powerful form of communication in pre-Independence and immediate post-Independence Papua New Guinea, was literally killed by video and then television.

How true were the words of that famous 1970s pop song ‘Video killed the radio star’!

The cinema (haus piksa) – once popular all over the country – has become as extinct as a dinosaur.

However, the Internet and digital mobile phones are probably two of the biggest technical innovations that have hit Papua New Guinea since September 16, 1975.

Pacific Mobile Communications (PMC) – 100 per cent owned by Telikom – is the only licensed provider of Internet and digital mobile phone services in the country.

Its two sections are mobile phones and Internet gateway

Internet hit Papua New Guinea big time in the late 1990s while digital mobile phones became a hit in 2003 and wiped out its predecessor, the more-expensive analogue mobile phones.

The number of digital mobile phones has, since 2003, eclipsed standard telephone line users.

PMC buys its Internet telecommunications capacity from Telikom and in turn makes it available to users.

“We connect to the Internet outside PNG and distribute the capacity to the four ISPs (Internet Service Providers) which are Datec, Daltron, DataNets and Global Internet,” explains PMC managing director Noel Mobiha.

“They are our partners in the Internet business.

“They sell the service through dial-up or lease line, on our behalf.

“The Internet growth in the country is limited by the available bandwidth from Telikom.

“However, this picture is going to change in September when more capacitators are provided by Telikom.

“We expect to double the current capacity we have in September.”

Mr Mobiha agrees that Internet growth is limited in Papua New Guinea to mainly those in the urban areas and with a good education.

“The growth (in Internet usage) is linear,” he says.

“The factors that are limiting growth are firstly bandwidth cost is too high, secondly because of costs and affordability of computers, and thirdly because of low literacy levels.

“These are the key factors hindering the growth of Internet in this country.”

To help alleviate these, PMC – as a community service obligation (CSO) - is investing in the universities to build a Papua New Guinea education research network (ERNet).

“That we hope will give us a subscriber base that is more information literate – an information society - for the future of the country,” Mr Mobiha continues.

“Because we believe that if we don’t invest in education and research, our future is dim.

“We are giving a grant of K250, 000 per year to assist develop this network, which will tie all the universities together.

“They will be bound under the agreement to provide support services to national high schools and lower education.

“In other words, they will serve as hosts and schools can dial in under them.

“That’s what we’re doing as a community service obligation (CSO) project.”

PMC launched its GSM900 service in May 2003, under the trade name Bee Mobile.

The digital GSM brought Papua New Guinea on par with the majority of countries in the Pacific region and the rest of the world, who have digital mobile networks.

Before that, few Papua New Guineans had the expensive analogue mobile phones, and the thinking among expatriate consultants was that digital mobile phone usage wouldn’t go pass the 20,000 mark.

How wrong they were, as Papua New Guineans took to the new ‘toys’ with glee, and the number of users is now near the 70,000 mark.

“Initially, there were 3000 subscribers,” Mr Mobiha says.

“The network was designed for a ceiling of 20,000 users: 12,000 in Port Moresby, 4000 in Lae, and the balance around Madang, Goroka and Mount Hagen

“Mobile phone growth was then very slow.

“Consultants thought that usage wouldn’t grow, and that the 20,000 ceiling would be reached by December 2005.

“The 20,000 ceiling was reached in December 2003 – two years ahead of what consultants predicted.

“The network has grown to more than three times what it was designed for, with currently 60,000 to 70,000 subscribers.

“We didn’t do anything to cater for this.”

“We have now reached a stage where we are logging 2700 new customers per month.

“That’s going to change to more people once the network expands.

“It’s going to grow, this (mobile phone) technology.

“What we see now is ‘going forward’.”

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