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How Tonga Got Hooked Up

The day the king turned on the internet

Illustration by Tyler Hoehne

Last year, King Tupou VI of Tonga stood beside his Prime Minister, Lord Tu‘ivakan?, in front of a crowd gathered in the center of the nation’s capital, Nuku‘alofa. With as much pageantry as he could muster for the act, the King tapped the mouse, and with one little click launched the Pacific island nation’s first ever high-speed internet service. The ceremony garnered more fanfare and press attention than most tech upgrades do, and for good reason—it can be extremely difficult to hook such a remote nation into the modern internet infrastructure. Considering how vital it could be to Tonga’s future, the King’s was a mouse click worthy of celebration.

Tonga is the kind of place that gives urban planners a migraine. About 2,000 miles east of Australia and 500 miles southeast of the already remote Fiji, it’s so far off the beaten path that it was never colonized. Its 105,000 citizens live dispersed over 52 habitable islands, which are themselves scattered over a swath of ocean the size of Texas. Over an area that wide, it’s hard enough to even provide basic services like electricity and sanitation. The nation has had some success recently with off-the-grid, personal solar and wind power sources for rural communities, but for years even the thought of laying fiber optic cables was out of the question.

Fiber optics are expensive, plain and simple. Prices vary depending upon a line’s remoteness, vulnerability, and profitability, but these cables can run anywhere from a few thousand to over $100,000 per mile. Most existing lines were laid long ago, incentivized by large markets eager to connect with one another. A number of island nations, like Fiji, benefitted by straddling these transit lines. While large regions with growing economies, like those in East Africa, have been able to raise the billions needed to plug into the modern internet, the last few unconnected parts of the world—remote islands like Kiribati, Palau, and Tuvalu—don’t have the necessary purchasing power. Consequently, Tonga and other nations have been stuck relying on extremely expensive, inefficient satellite internet. Think dial-up speeds and dropped file downloads, then add in the threat of a malfunction plunging you into information darkness for hours or even days.

For Tonga, this can be a big issue. Beyond the usual inconveniences and inefficiencies of a largely pre-internet reality, Tongans rely on telecoms to maintain ties with their diaspora population. Numbers are hazy, but it’s likely there are at least as many Tongans living abroad as on the islands, and the remittances they send home make up a good chunk of the local economy.

The World Bank recently stepped in. Inspired by a 2011 UNESCO report linking a 10 percent growth in broadband access to a 1.4 percent spike in low income nations’ annual economic growth, the Bank decided to join forces with both the Asian Development Bank and Tonga Cable Corporation to launch the Pacific Regional Connectivity Program, a $32.8 million project running fiber optic cables from Fiji’s lines to Tonga.

The plan was announced in September 2011 and under construction by early 2012. On August 21, 2013, King Tupou VI hit the switch, and in under a second, revolutionized the nation’s telecommunications. Each of the 32 lines that were laid offered connectivity speeds of 10 gigabytes per second, a considerable improvement over the 20 to 30 megabytes per second previously available. By December, where the lines were accessible, not only did speeds multiply exponentially, but internet costs dropped by up to 60 percent.

With their era of informational exile behind them, Tonga is pushing to increase its people’s access to the new broadband resources. In February 2014, the government offered a 50 percent discount on service to schools and hospitals, and just last month they connected the University of South Pacific, Tonga to the network. With just a few hundred miles of thin wire, students gained a new world of information, businesses were opened to new markets and possibilities, and Tongans gained greater access to their families in the diaspora. Now it’s time to finally see about getting the last neglected corners of the planet up to speed, and bringing the same incredible boon of connectivity to everyone on Earth.

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