When the Internet goes out: a Marshall Islands perspective

By on 22 Apr 2019

Categories: Community Development

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Last month, Facebook experienced its worst worldwide outage ever. All of its popular apps, including Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp and Instagram, were affected to some degree with many users not even able to access them during the 24-hour downtime.

For many, the event highlighted their dependence on these services, many of which have become a primary means of day-to-day communication. In comparison though, this was only a slight inconvenience compared to what one Pacific Island community faced two years earlier when it was effectively cut off from the Internet for more than three weeks.

23 days, no social media

At the beginning of 2017, the Marshall Islands National Telecommunications Authority (NTA), undertook much-needed repairs to the HANTRU-1 submarine cable that it has managed since its landing in 2009.

The cable links the two major inhabited atolls, Majuro and Ebeye, the US military base at Kwajalein, and Pohnpei in the Federated States of Micronesia to Guam.

To make sure the economy was not entirely cut off from the Internet, the NTA reverted to its satellite backup, which provided 3% of the bandwidth Marshallese were used to, primarily for email traffic. Even then, there were reports of businesses and government offices resorting to dispatching staff with flash drives to deliver letters and documents.

As with many submarine cable repairs, the project exceeded its planned timeline by 14 days due to difficulties with identifying the exact location of the problem; leaving the 53,000 populous without high-speed Internet (and social media), which they had taken for granted for so long, for 23 days.

“I think for the first time our customers now appreciate what the fibre means — now businesses are saying we really need to have this,” Thomas Kijiner, NTA’s CEO said in an interview for the ABC at the time, adding that there had been debate from its beginning about whether it was too expensive for a small economy.

Similar sentiments were reported in Tonga in recent months too as it recovered from a cable break in January. As Pacific economies’ reliance on high-speed Internet for business and communication grows and, in some respects, the need for appropriate contingency options — whether it be a second cable or having sufficient satellite connectivity — the effects of these issues will become more profound than 24-hour Facebook outages.

Read: What is the cost of relying on a single cable?

Mitigation and capacity development key to future-proofing network

These views are not lost on the NTA, who since the 2017 outage, have been working towards upgrading and securing the Marshall Islands network — like many Pacific economies they are the sole telecommunications provider for providing domestic and international voice, fax, data, and Internet services to and from the Marshall Islands.

As the host of 2018’s Pacific Network Operators Group Forum (PacNOG 23), Thomas and his team got the opportunity to share these developments, which have included:

  • Deploying IPv6 on their core (they are currently testing on the access side)
  • Implementing DNSSEC
  • Replacing legacy analog telephony switches
  • Extending LTE services to outer islands
  • Replacing copper cables and rolling out fibre to homes and businesses
  • Increasing bandwidth to the outer islands and overall bandwidth to meet future demand

The event also provided an opportunity for NTA staff to receive training on IP routing as well as network and Internet security best current practices.

“It is quite difficult and expensive to travel outside of the Marshall Islands, so opportunities like this, where we can get face-to-face training, are really valuable for developing and maintaining our local capacity,” said Thomas.

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The views expressed by the authors of this blog are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of APNIC. Please note a Code of Conduct applies to this blog.

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