Earlier this month, residents of the remote village of Naviso on the outer island of Maewo, Vanuatu, were able to contact the outside world via the Island’s first high-speed Internet connection for the first time.
The broadband satellite service is the village’s first telecommunication connection – landline telephone, mobile and Internet – and will aid with health and education services.
One of the key people behind the connection was Alexis Cullen, a former US Peace Corp volunteer and telemedicine professional, who had been living in the community for the past two years.
“When I first got to Naviso in 2014, electricity was scarce and there were zero telecommunications – no landline telephones, no mobile reception and definitely no Internet,” remembers Alexis. “If you wanted reception you had to walk 1.5 hours up a mountain.”
Alexis says witnessing and living in such conditions was a real eye-opener for her and her husband. “Like many outer island communities, they’re so far removed that they just got left behind during all the progress that has been made in recent years in Vanuatu.”
Establishing the first community-led telecommunications committee in Vanuatu
Many Pacific communities share similar situations as Naviso, with governments and industry struggling to find cost-effective methods to connect such small populations living in difficult terrains. Recognizing the challenge they were faced with, villagers throughout Maewo took matters into their own hands and established the Maewo Telecommunications Committee (Inc.), or MTC.
Launched in April 2016, the MTC are a community-led, incorporated charitable association with the vision:
‘to have good access to telecommunication services on Maewo Island so that we, the people of Maewo, can communicate with the outside world and have easy access to accurate information at all times.’
Alexis says the committee aims to empower communities to seek relationships with NGOs, governmental agencies, and other non-profits in order to find creative solutions for telecommunication needs on Maewo Island.
“It is the first community-led telecommunications committee ever in Vanuatu and probably the first in the Pacific,” says Alexis, who helped advise villagers on establishing the committee during her time on Maewo.
“They came together and decided what connectivity meant to them and what was important in their lives. In Vanuatu, it’s typical for communities to have health, school, and water committees but never one to address telecommunications needs.”
Multiple stakeholders involved in bringing the Internet to Maewo
After completing her two-year voluntary position in Maewo earlier in 2016, Alexis said she wanted to continue to help her adopted community in their effort to connect. She says it was a main reason for extending her time in Vanuatu and accepting a position with the Office of the Government Chief Information Officer (OGCIO) earlier in 2016 to assist with a new telemedicine project – the Vanuatu Inter-Island Telemedicine and Learning Network (VITAL) – which aims to connect remote villages to provincial hospitals.
“It’s currently a pilot project in conjunction with the MTC and enables communication among all levels of care from the aid post in Naviso to Lolowai Provincial Hospital through to Luganville’s Northern District Hospital on Santo Island,” says Alexis.
MTC’s establishment has, in essence, been a multistakeholder project. MTC has raised funds to purchase and install the satellite equipment from Kacific Broadband Satellites and has received support from the OGCIO, the Telecommunications and Radiocommunications Regulator, and the Ministry of Health to ensure health clinics on Maewo will have access to the Government Broadband Network in due course. Telsat Broadband has also agreed to provide on-the-job training to one of Maewo’s certified electrical engineers in order to maintain the system.
“We have received help from so many organizations, local and foreign. My telemedicine colleagues from where I used to work in the USA have also helped with some of the planning work, and a telemedicine network in India has helped by looking at the logistics to plot out what it would look like to build a P2P network.”
Alexis says that the original plan was to install microwave towers to allow for point-to-point connection, but instead, they have chosen to use satellite because it was quick to implement, relatively easy to maintain, and reasonably priced.
“The satellite connectivity is so strong – it’s better than in Port Vila!”
Saying hello to the world
On Thursday, 28 July, Naviso villagers held a celebration to commemorate what has been a two-year plan to bring the Internet to their remote village, which they televised over the Internet.
Villagers used the opportunity to educate the world about their culture through traditional dances and comedy.
In a sign of respect, the Prime Minister of Vanuatu the Hon. Charlot Salwai, also attended the celebration.
Alexis says it is the first time the Prime Minister has visited Maewo, but more importantly, “the event was the first time, and hopefully, the first of many times, that people from around the world get to visit – virtually, and hopefully in time, physically – this amazing island.”
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