6. Using technology to bridge access gaps in the Pacific

Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade (MFAT), New Zealand

Difficult-to-access energy and telecommunications services constrain development in the Pacific

In the Pacific, small island states and sub-national populations are scattered across vast distances of ocean. Many Pacific countries comprise small land masses within huge economic zones; the Cook Islands population of 15 2001 is spread between 15 small islands in an area of 1.8 million km2, while Kiribati’s 108 1452 people live on 32 atolls in an area of ocean the size of the continental United States.

This presents a unique set of challenges to Pacific governments seeking to provide essential services to all of their citizens. The economies of scale possible in other developing economies do not exist, and access to basic services such as power or telecommunications is often constrained by very high per-capita cost of service provision, particularly in areas outside the capital or main island. This has led to inequity in service delivery and levels of prosperity both within and between Pacific countries. The inequity also perpetuates a development divide that continues to widen as growth and innovation of technology services in other regions outpace that in the Pacific.

Strengthening access to telecommunications in remote areas by upgrading existing connections

The New Zealand Aid Programme has taken a multi-sector, multi-partner approach to this issue, working with Pacific countries to strengthen access to essential services. A particular focus has been improving access to reliable power and connectivity for remote and rural populations so they are not left behind.

A key approach has been strengthening existing institutions to improve essential services in the region. New Zealand has partnered with the University of the South Pacific (USP), which has 14 campuses and 10 centres across 12 Pacific countries and is often the primary institution delivering tertiary and vocational education in those countries.

The University’s digital network USPNet connects all campuses and is used to deliver academic services to staff and students, as well as general Internet connectivity for campus users. USPNet is now almost 20 years old, and digital services for staff and students at remote or rural campuses are constrained by the sub-optimal performance of the underlying network. Working with New Zealand, this project is upgrading the satellite connections at campuses in all 12 countries, including the main hub on the Fiji campus. It is also upgrading networking systems in all campuses to bring modern services to the entire staff and student base throughout the Pacific.

This project will provide USP with a technology platform to develop and deliver open distance flexible learning (ODFL) services to improve the learning experience for students in all 12 countries - including very small countries with reduced connectivity such as Tokelau and Tuvalu. For the first time, all students in the USP network will have a comparable digital experience regardless of location. The platform will rival those seen in tertiary institutions in developed, highly connected countries. High-definition videoconferencing, lecture capture and data-rich e-learning services will be accessible throughout the campus network.

These new services can enable USP to transform the delivery of its curricula, ensuring that students throughout the campus network are able to engage in a variety of learning methods. This includes participation in virtual classroom learning delivered from the main Fiji campus, giving students in remote learning centres access to the same quality of learning experience as any student on a main campus.

Partnership with a well-established institution for efficient and effective service delivery

The project has highlighted the value of partnering with existing institutions that can bring efficiency in delivery, sustainability, and improved access to essential services for remote populations, leaving no one behind.

In this case, USP is the main tertiary education service provider in the region - owned by member countries and with a track record of effective delivery. It has a multi-country institutional base, existing investment, and reputational stake in delivering services effectively. Critically, it is not only the locus for the project but an active partner, providing means for sustainability and effective use of the new connectivity. At the same time, the partnership has produced an efficient project with a low cost to stakeholders.

What next?

The Pacific continues to need considerable investment in essential services to bridge the development divide. Increasing partnership between Pacific regional institutions, governments and donors will enable a common and cost-effective approach to meeting development challenges in the region, while ensuring the needs of individual countries are still met.

This project will open up opportunities to build on the investment in new connectivity to achieve a step-change in education access for remote populations and for countries who could never afford this on their own. New Zealand recently announced a partnership with USP and the Commonwealth of Learning to expand ODFL opportunities at secondary and tertiary levels. This will draw on the increased connectivity through USPNet to benefit the wider education sector.

The new USPNet will also enable USP to provide data-intensive Research and Education Network services to all member countries, rather than only Fiji. This has the potential to open up academic research opportunities across the Pacific, including in national tertiary institutions in these countries as well as USP campuses.


← 1. 2016 estimates.

← 2. July 2017 estimates.

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