Digicel Pacific commercial director Khafra Kambon will address the Innovation PNG 2019 conference in Port Moresby on Friday. In an interview with Business Advantage PNG, he talks about connectivity challenges, infrastructure and PNG’s digital future. The conference will be held at The Stanley Hotel & Suites.
QUESTION: The Coral Sea cable system and the Kumul submarine cable are designed to improve connectivity in PNG.
But they are only part of the solution. What is still required to bring reliable and affordable internet to the bulk of PNG’s population? What role will Digicel play in this?
KAMBON: The Coral Sea cable coupled with the Kumul round island fibre is a great initiative. The Coral Sea cable doubles the off-island gigabit fibre capacity. The Kumul round island fibre brings gigabit capacity to a number of coastal centres. Each complements the other.
However both combined do not provide last mile connectivity to the bulk of the eight million-plus population.
For these two strategic initiatives to meet the expectations of the people, last mile gigabit connectivity must be established in rural PNG. We can enrich the discourse around connecting the unconnected, when we view it through the lens of the national infrastructure development plan.
Telecommunications must go hand in hand with roads, electricity, security, etc.
To meet the challenge of gigabit connectivity for all of Papua New Guinea, key stakeholders including Digicel must work to advance the dialogue on national infrastructure development.
In the next eight months, Digicel is bringing coverage to 50 communities that today have no mobile coverage. We will also upgrade 173 cell sites.
This will expand data connectivity and give many more Papua New Guineans access to the internet – and at first-world speed.
Increased connectivity facilitates education and compliments the more than 600 schools the Digicel Foundation has built over the past 10 years.
Expanded coverage facilitates financial inclusion and increases economic growth opportunities for 87 per cent of the population (rural).
Digicel continues to support and promote the goals of the Government. Most importantly the company will continue the task we set when we launched 12 years ago: to connect the unconnected.
QUESTION: The cost of internet in PNG remains high by international standards.
What are the prospects for price reductions in the short-to-medium term? What factors will influence pricing and help bring down costs?
KAMBON: Digicel has invested more than US$1 billion (K3.3 billion) in communication infrastructure and continues to invest in PNG – building new towers and upgrading existing ones.
Digicel has already built more than 1,000 communication towers and provides services to more than 80 per cent of the population, 22 per cent of whom enjoy 4G LTE.
Strong tourist potential, abundant natural resources and a population pyramid heavily weighted towards youth are all bright spots facilitating future technological development.
It is important to remember that with no national grid, 80 per cent of our sites run on diesel generators.
With no national road network, we deliver fuel to our sites bi-weekly on foot, by boat and helicopter.
With limited security outside of Port Moresby we pay to secure our sites, fuel and employees.
All these contribute to one of the highest operating expense costs per site, globally.
Many of our rural sites remain unprofitable.
A supplementary fibre to the beach won’t help Digicel remove the costs associated with security, fuel delivery, and microwave and satellite backhaul.
To reduce retail pricing, we need to reduce our core input costs (international bandwidth makes up only a fraction of this costs).
To meet the challenge of gigabit connectivity for all of Papua New Guinea, key stake holders, including Digicel, must work to advance the dialogue on national infrastructure development.
Roads, power and security are the keys to significantly lowering internet prices in the medium-to-long term.
QUESTION: What is your personal vision for the broader use of technology and connectivity in PNG society, for example, in education? How is Digicel helping to drive change?
KAMBON: PNG has the potential to become a powerhouse in the Pacific. Strong tourist potential, abundant natural resources and a population pyramid heavily weighted towards youth (53 per cent of the population are under the age of 24) are all bright spots facilitating future technological development.
The natural predilection of the younger generation towards technology will be the enabler of change. Digicel’s challenge is to speed up the adoption of technology beyond the cities and traditional centres of commerce, by upgrading all our towers across the country.
We continue to invest in this rural expansion.
It is because of our belief in the younger generation that Digicel partnered with SDP and Save the Children to launch an e-learning trial in Western, putting more than 15,000 tablets loaded with learning software in the hands of the next generation.
Digicel is also launching a mobile financial services business that over time will give rural PNG access to financial services such as micro loans and remittance – today these tools are only available in urban centres.
We continue to invest in all areas of PNG.
Our goal is to build the technical ecosystem that will support development.
The sons and daughters of Papua New Guinea will use it to build their own digital future.