Local Cook Island Time - Mon 05 Jul 11:41 CKT

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Casting the Net far and wide

A world full of new competitors

Until recently, the Cook Islands was under a Vodafone internet monopoly; it changed in 2019
from the Telecommunications Act opening the internet business to anyone that wanted in.
Four new internet service providers (ISPs) have joined and with no cap on the number of ISPs,
more are expected.

ISPs act as middlemen between internet suppliers and consumers. An ISP buys large quantities of data from places like the Avaroa Cable or O3B (‘Other 3 Billion’ satellite service) and distributes it to customers.

An ISP can offer packages with fixed data or limited bandwidth, often measured in megabits per second Mbps, which is the download rate of the internet connection.

To put internet speed in perspective YouTube suggests 5 Mbps to watch a video that’s HD 1080p, and 20 Mbps for a 4K video.

The chair of Competition and Regulatory Authority, Bernard Hill, says prices should get cheaper with the new competition.

Hill thinks overall Vodafone is a good company that has “probably been expensive in the past”.
New competitor, chief executive officer of Kuk i Net, William Framhein says he’s here to offer customers a choice.

Kuk i Net gets its data from Kacific Broadband Satellites and provides two products. One is a VSAT, which is at home internet via a satellite dish and has a set-up cost of $1800. The other service is Wi-Fi hotspots. Framhein says both options offer competitive prices.
A criticism of satellite internet is there are latency issues – the time it takes for data to be transferred between its original source and destination.

This can make video conferences and gaming difficult.

“The latency issue is only a problem if you want it to be a problem for you,” says Framhein.

“It’s just making that connection from your place to the server, once that connection is made, it’s super, duper fast.”

Around the world, low orbit satellites are being deployed in an attempt to create low latency, fast internet in places that traditionally have a poor internet connection.

One of the best-known companies doing this is Elon Musk’s Starlink.

The company is in beta testing and expects the people taking the trial to have internet speeds of 50 to 150 mbps and low latency.

The testing costs users close to $700 to set up and $140 for the service. According to StarLink’s website, it’s expecting to hit Cook Islands shores in 2022.

Framhein says when it comes to the possibility of new low orbit competitors, he’s “not too concerned”.

“They’ll just be another satellite provider.”

New possibilities

Avaroa Cable Limited is the Pacific’s newest wholesale fiber optic operator providing managed wholesale connectivity services to and between the Cook Islands.

Avaroa Cable chief executive officer Dr Ranulf Scarbrough says when it comes to internet speed, the Manatua Cable, a submarine communications cable linking Samoa, Niue, the Cook Islands, and French Polynesia, is capable of doing 10 million Mbps.

Scarbrough says the cable has allowed Rarotonga and Aitutaki to have access to powerful tools
available elsewhere in the world.

“The internet and what the internet can do for you evolves very rapidly and we see that all over the world.

“What are the wonderful things that the internet can deliver in the future, who can say, but we
know through the cable we will be able to participate and I think that’s really key… it’s a ticket to
participate.”

Although the cable is in and has been operating since July, the fast internet is not always seen and diagnosing slow internet is not always straightforward.

Scarbrough says it could be down to a number of factors from Wi-Fi routers, the computer
performance, plans with capped download speeds, and copper wires.

Copper wires

The copper-based internet connection system in the Cook Islands has limited capacity for speed.
Telecommunications regulator Hill says moving from the cable capable of 10 million Mbps to copper wire is like a very large water pipe flowing quickly with water moving into a very small one.
Copper wires were originally placed for the purpose of telephones. This is not unique to the Cook Islands and common around the world.

Internet speed with copper is determined by the distance of the internet exchange; the longer the copper wire is the slower the internet is.

But improvements can be made to copper. Here it has meant an ADSL (Asymmetric Digital Subscriber Line) system is in place which has a theoretical internet speed of 24 Mbps.

Scarbrough says further improvements can be made but it gets to a point where fibre makes the most sense.

He says it’s like someone buying a Mini and wants a really fast car. So the person needs to buy a bigger engine, a better carburettor, a new exhaust, “and then you go, actually I might as well just buy a faster car – it’s a bit like that”.

“We’re pretty much getting to the point where cooper can’t cope with the speeds anymore so optical fibre is a great solution.

“It’s very easy to make it happen, the only thing you need is money. It is quite an expensive activity.”

Vodafone Cook Islands is undertaking the project and its chief executive officer Phillip Henderson says “Fibre to the Premises” will connect fibre to all premises on Rarotonga and Aitutaki.

“This will enable customers on these islands to have the same service capability as ultra-fast broadband in New Zealand.”

East and West flow

The direction the cables data flows can cause latency issues and at the moment it’s flowing the wrong way.

Data from the cable is transmitted eastward to an internet junction point in Los Angeles. Avaroa Cable’s Scarbrough says: “If you think about it, if you want to talk to someone in the US, going through the US is great. But if you want to talk to someone in Auckland your traffic has to go all the way to the US and back to Auckland. You can end up with a little bit of a delay.”

The Manatua Cable is a shared venture with French Polynesia, Niue, Samoa and the Cook Islands; it was done as a way to share the expensive burden of the cable.

“So that cable then takes us as far as Tahiti and Samoa but of course people don’t just want to communicate with people from Tahiti and Samoa.”

Scarbrough says the most relevant internet junction points are in Los Angeles and Sydney and to get to those points work needs to be done with other cable operators.

“What we hope to do is open up a route instead of eastward, take us westward to Sydney.”
Scarbrough thinks a route will be opening west and is optimistic for the future of internet in the Cook Islands.