Connecting More Pacific Islands During Covid
By John Hibbard
July 27, 2021
The Pacific Ocean has a total of twenty-two (22) designated Pacific Island Nations/Countries (PICs). Of these five (5) do not yet have cable connections. With the development of the Southern Cross NEXT (SX NEXT) cable, the opportunity arose to provide two of these PICs with cable connections using spurs off the main SX NEXT cable from Australia to the USA. These two PICs are Kiribati and Tokelau.
This paper outlines some of the challenges associated with providing cables to such places, particularly during the COVID pandemic.
In developing the arrangements for the Kiribati spur, particularly those associated with the terrestrial terminal, there have been some vital things that one has had to learn.
At the risk of sounding extremely basic, the first and particularly important one is how to correctly pronounce the various names written in local indigenous language. The Kiribati spur off SX NEXT lands at Kiritimati. These place names are words from the local Gilbertese language. In Gilbertese there is no ‘S’ in the alphabet, rather they use “TI” for “S” – not dissimilar to English such as in the word nation (pronounced as “naishon”). Hence Kiribati is pronounced Kiribas and Kiritimati is pronounced Krismas (yes that’s right – Christmas!). Without knowing that, the locals can have significant issues relating to your needs!
Kiritimati (Christmas) Island is located midway between French Polynesia and Hawaii. It is 3000 km away from the capital of Kiribati in Tarawa. So, it is extremely remote. Pre-COVID there was one flight per week into Kiritimati – since COVID there have been none. Kiritimati is the largest coral atoll in the world being some 50 kilometres from north to south. The population of 6000 people are located at the northern end. The southern end was where Britain conducted nuclear tests in the 1950s.
Quite fortuitously the Southern Cross cable will pass relatively close by Kiritimati Island enabling a spur of 375 km to provide the island with fibre-optic connectivity. It takes quite some serious reflection to put into perspective the challenges that arise with such remote locations. Apart from infrequent transport arrangements, where the island is served by the regional shipping line only every two or three months, there are limited stocks of materials on the island and limited numbers of skilled workers. For instance:
- You need to import your own cement!
- At present there is aggregate available, but this is not necessarily always the case.
- Of course, there is plenty of sand!
- Other construction materials need to be imported.
- Getting adequate water is another issue as local water is pumped from the aquifer beneath the sand on the island.