In the heart of the South Pacific lies the secluded island country of Tonga. As late as the 1950s, the only thing connecting it to the outside world was a monthly banana boat to New Zealand.
Times have changed.
Next July, Tonga will be the recipient of the most advanced wireless communications network in the world. This hi-tech facelift comes with many difficulties, controversies and unanswered questions. Alice Daly wants the answers.
Daly is a UCSB graduate student in the anthropology department who is studying the technological revolution in Tonga and its effect on the local culture.
The concept for the communications network began with Tonga’s Crown Prince Tupouto’a. He started the company Shoreline Communications to install and administer the network.
The network itself will consist of cellular phones with text messaging features and at-home wireless ports through which a combined telephone, Internet and television signal will be pumped. Wireless technology saves the country the expense of laying down a ground infrastructure of the type used in the U.S. and other developed countries. Wire infrastructures are prohibitively expensive and have been one of the primary limiting factors to communications technology in developing countries.
“The Internet, for the United States, is entertainment,” Tupouto’a told the Nexus. “For Tonga, the compressibility of TCP/IP enables us to enjoy the benefits of an advanced telephone system, data access and TV service which would have been unattainable under more conventional telecommunications protocols.”
Wireless technology will not only provide Tonga with widespread access to the Internet, television and telephone services; Tongan Internet service stands to be as much as eight times faster than anywhere else in the world.
“Bandwidth issues and a lot of other things are much more restricted as this technology is introduced [in the U.S.],” Daly said. “Just because we have such a huge and elaborate regulatory structure on all our communications and bandwidth issues.”
The United States and other developed countries allocate specific radio frequencies for different uses and assign them to different companies. In the last few years, this policy has come under fire as being an inefficient use of the range of radio frequencies, known as bandwidth.
“In Tonga, there’s basically no limits on the bandwidth that’s available to them, so they can use extremely wide bandwidth, which translates into extremely high-speed downloads and uploads,” Daly said.
In addition to the wireless connections throughout the country, Shoreline plans to install a fiber optic network in the country’s capital of Nuku’alofa.
“There will be a catch up to our technical standards in many cases actually surpassing what’s available here in the U.S.,” Daly said. “We have this old dinosaur of a communications infrastructure. So when a place like Tonga immediately introduces high speed state of the art stuff, they could very well wind up doing things that we either haven’t thought of in our country or haven’t been capable of possibly for technical reasons.”
Tonga Communications Corporation (TCC) was established in 2001 by the Tongan government, assuming the duties of several older federal communications companies. The new company now plans to offer services similar to those promised by Shoreline Communications Inc. Both companies are scheduled to begin service next July, kicking off a battle for the interest of the buying public.
The question that concerns many is whether or not the country is big enough for this sort of competition. Proponents of a two-company system for Internet services claim that direct competition between Shoreline Communications Inc. and TCC will lower the price of services to Tongans, as well as increase the efficiency of the technology.
Others remain skeptical, citing the limited size of the Tongan population. Over half its people live, work or go to school overseas, primarily in the U.S., New Zealand and Australia. Residents of the 45 inhabited Tongan islands number a little over 100,000.
Critics claim that the consuming public in Tonga is too small to support both companies at once. They are concerned that the result of the competition will be disastrous, limiting the resources of both companies so that they provide only limited service or no service at all.
In addition to TCC and Shoreline Communications Inc., the nation’s satellite service, Tongasat, also provides telephone service to the islanders. This stands to further dilute the consumer base of TCC and Shoreline.
In other South Pacific island countries, Southern Cross Communications is currently beginning to lay down fiber optic Internet connections.
“The sad thing is, you’ve got Shoreline and Tongasat and TCC. If you combine the kind of funds that the competing organizations have been generating over the last three years, we would have had the money to land the Southern Cross cable in Tonga,” Taholo Kami, founder of Tonga’s first website said. “With a small market, mistakes become very, very costly and hard to recover from.”
[Love it. Or Leave it.]
Since the 1970s, Tonga has become progressively more connected to the outside world. More Tongans have been studying and working abroad. Satellite phone service and limited Internet access have existed in the country for some time.
“Even before overseas Tongans were using e-mail and the Internet, you had this highly networked group of people over a huge, huge part of the globe,” Daly said. “It’s just one of the things about their culture. They really are very close to extended family groups. They tend to be very close with everyone in their entire village, in their particular church group. Tongans just have other Tongans that they feel related to or close to, everywhere.”
For the many Tongans overseas, the Internet seemed like a natural way to develop and maintain these kinds of social networks. The first website for Tongans was started in the 1990s by Taholo Kami.
“I stumbled on the Web in 1994 as a student coming in from Tonga. I was stuck in Nashville, Tennessee at Vanderbilt University looking for other Pacific Islanders,” Kami said. “At that time I was looking for news from home. I couldn’t find it.”
Faced with a problem, Kami decided to create his own solution.
“I spent a lot of time at three in the morning trying to find other islanders using the Internet,” he said. “And then realizing that you could interact and use forums, I started a website called Tonga Online. From that I set up an interactive forum called the Kava Bowl.”
What Tonga Online started was more than a trend.
“The website actually exploded, and within about two or three years we were getting a million hits a month,” Kami said. “And mainly from Pacific Islanders with similar needs, which was quite an experience.”
After Tonga Online, a multitude of other Polynesian websites began to appear.
“They’re very sophisticated in their outlooks,” Daly said. “So using the Internet, especially for overseas Tongans, where it was fairly accessible was a very natural thing in terms of keeping connections going between the overseas populations and the homeland populations.”
“It’s almost as if the Internet demonstrated how the Tongan community and Pacific Island communities are literally borderless,” said Kami. “There are as many Tongans overseas as there are in Tonga. A thing like the Internet became a bond that suddenly provided a lot of support for these islanders growing up overseas and looking for identity.”
But upon returning to Tonga, even Kami felt less need for the Internet community.
“I started wondering if it was still worth me paying for all this on my credit card or letting it go and letting other people do it,” he said. “It’s easier to do with the Internet access here in the States than it is to do from Fiji or Tonga.”
The question remains as to how many islanders will actually be interested in the Internet.
“There’s a fair bit of controversy surrounding Shoreline,” said Kami. “They’re making the assumption that by putting it down people will come. And we’ve yet to see them put anything down.”
Tonga has had limited Internet service since the mid-90s. The current service is expensive and is used primarily by businesses and schools. Nonetheless, it is there for those who need it, and its presence calls into question the need for further services.
“Perhaps Tongans at home in Tonga — the ones who find it interesting or necessary or important in their lives to have Internet access — perhaps are the ones that already do,” Daly said.
How communications services will develop in Tonga is a question that only time will answer.
“The subscribers will undoubtedly decide the shape of what they want,” Crown Prince Tupouto’a said. “I am merely the carrier who wishes to provide what they feel the public should buy.”
Before returning to school to become an anthropologist, Daly worked in television news.
“As part of my anthropology studies, I continue to be interested in all the social issues around communication,” Daly said.
There are always the basic questions: Will Tongans download movies and music? Will they shop online?
Regardless, Daly does not expect any real culture shock.
“Tongans are much more international in their perspective than most Americans are,” she said. “When you’re over there, you never run into anyone who says, ‘Oh, what’s the United States like?’ because pretty much everybody knows. They’ve either been there themselves or know someone who has.”
According to Daly, the most interesting questions revolve around how these technologies will enable Tongans to mold their culture.
“Will it be something that intensifies the way things are now and solidifies family connections, solidifies certain aspects of cultural tradition? Will it be something that accelerates change? Probably both,” Daly said.
Tonga is sometimes referred to as the last Polynesian kingdom. It is, in fact, one of the last absolute monarchies in the world. This is a point of cultural pride for most Tongans. Nonetheless, burning questions remain.
“There are all these ideas coming back from living overseas in democratic countries,” Daly said. “Why can’t our government be more accountable? Why can’t we have more representation of more of the people? So there’s this whole pro-democracy movement that’s been brewing and boiling for at least the last decade, and again, one has to wonder whether daily access to the Internet might intensify the political dissent.”
The anonymity provided by Internet forums also allows people to make unprecedented criticisms of the Tongan government.
“It’s been an eye-opener for conservative governments back home when they suddenly realize you can’t just close the newspaper,” Kami said. “It used to be if you disagreed with something that came out in the paper, you closed it. Suddenly they’re coming out looking for information, and people say to them ‘It will take your whole annual budget for the police department to get Hotmail’ to give up the identity of the people who made that submission. And number two, what if it’s just a 17-year-old kid in Phoenix, Arizona?”
With the Internet comes the potential for change, but the type of change it will bring is still unclear. Many users of Tongan online forums are extremely pro-monarchy as well.
“The fact of the Internet is not necessarily going to accelerate modernization or westernization or accelerate people turning away from their traditional beliefs, values and practices,” Daly said. “One thing that has been remarked on by a lot of researchers looking at overseas Tongan communities is in some cases the overseas Tongan communities are more Tongan than the Tongans back home. … One of the ways you maintain a sense of identity and pride in yourself is to really dig into your sense of pride in who you are culturally.”
Whatever results from the introduction of wireless technologies to Tonga, it will be worth noting.
“Tonga is just this small place, but many other developing nations will follow in this pattern. That’s why it’s important to look at the social and the political and the cultural implications of the introduction of a new technology.”
For Daly and the Tongan public, the coming years will bring answers to these questions and many others that have not yet been asked.
“I’m convinced that for small island countries the Internet is the best thing that’s ever happened since the jet plane,” Kami said. “It’s opened up the possibilities for so many different things. It’s up now to these small countries like Tonga to literally identify a niche, take a stake in the role it will play in their economies and empower their people to make the most of it.”