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Palau Looks To The Promises Of Undersea Fiber Optic Technology

Koror- As Palau has placed its bet on developing its tourism industry to fuel its economic development, many entrepreneurs small and big depends on the power of internet for the survival of their businesses. Constant access and reliability of internet is a requirement to stay relevant in the competitive world of today’s visitor industry. “Responding to an off-island customer instantly is a must. I could lose a customer if I don’t respond within 24-hours,” said Des Matsutaro, owner of Palau Adventures and Adventure Inn , a Peleliu-based tour and lodging company.

Matsutaro said he needs constant access anywhere he travels on island. He depends on the reliability of the internet service to handle customer bookings and there are times that connection or service coverage is not there. On days of heavy cloud cover, Palau National Communication Corp. and Palau Telecoms, two of Palau’s main internet service providers, won’t escape the wrath of the local online community with their slow and intermittent connectivity.

In a tropical weather where there’s lots of rainfall, this is a common occurrence with Internet service delivered through satellite links. Palau, as one of the popular destinations, endowed with its unique natural beauty and laidback life, still has an abysmal internet service that draws negative feedback from visitors. But this is soon to change as Palau is expecting a significantly faster and reliable Internet connection early next year with a $25-million submarine fiber optic cable to be operational. President Tommy E. Remengesau Jr., in his annual address before the Palau National Congress, said the undersea cable project is well on its way to reach the island by the end of this year. “There is every indication that the project will be delivered on target in December 2017,and within budget,” President Remengesau said.

The timeline for the first customers to be connected is January 2018. Palau has been linked to the worldwide web through a constellation of low-earth orbiting satellites since 2015, which is an upgrade from the conventional geostationary satellites. But while internet service has improved over the years, the demand for reliable and faster connectivity still remain, highlighted by Palauans on off-island travel referring to their returning home as back to the land of slow internet. Local customers have long been eyeing improved online experiences that will not break their wallet. “This expected improvement is profoundly a cure to our long frustrations,” said local consumer Akino Mekoll, through a Facebook messenger.

He said he has been waiting with hope that the cost will be reduced for everyone. According to Robin Russell, chief executive officer of the Belau Submarine Cable Corp., satellite signals are subject to raid fade, that is, decibel loss because of cloud and rain, which can and does impact service quality. The Belau Submarine Cable is a state-owned enterprise, and is the implementing agency for the Palau government, and also owns the cable -- wholesaler of the broadband capacity. One of the major promises of the new undersea fiber optic is to withstand the unexpected changes in daily weather. “A submarine fiber optic cable has no vulnerability to any weather conditions. Quality of service will therefore be considerably improved, since it does rain a lot in Palau,” Russell said in response to email queries.

Untapped Resource

The internet is still an untapped resource that with an upgrade to fiber optic could open up another realm of economic activity for Palau. Once in service, the fiber optic is expected to bring significant reductions in the wholesale cost of broadband internet connectivity. “I expect greater efficiency and cost savings due to faster service, more opportunities based on utilization of efficient applications that are available but currently unusable due to slow internet and for the newspaper, I will be able expand and monetize our online news business,” said Leilani Reklai, a local entrepreneur, who owns Island Times newspaper.

The increasing population of Palauans residing off-island has formed a steady real-time engagement with happenings at home that news and information are on demand.

Janiz Ruetinag, station manager for Palau Wave Radio, said the fiber optic cable will have a positive impact on delivering radio programming. “It helps us deliver news, announcements, talk shows, press conferences, and other programs as well as music to listeners outside and inside of Palau,” Ruetinag said. Palau Wave Radio live-streamed President Remengesau’s State of the Repulbic Address on April 14, to Palauans overseas. “Having a faster internet will help us deliver them faster via live-streaming without much buffering and not fall behind on any uploads,” she added. [Full disclosure: the author of this article hosts a weekly radio show on Palau Wave Radio]

The undersea fiber optic cable is currently being laid from the Philippines to Guam. Remengesau in his address disclosed that shortly, the repeater and branching unit of the undersea cable will be attached and then the spur to Palau will be laid to the landing station.

Work in Ngeremlengui State has started for landing site. But while the undersea fiber optic cable will be brand new, Palau’s current island cable system is old and upgrading is set to commence with an additional $5 million infrastructure upgrade for a much improved signal. The promises of the undersea fiber optic cable will also largely depend on the retail service provider. “Of course, service quality for the end consumer will also be determined by the quality of their retail Service Provider’s network in Palau. It will be up to the service providers to translate this into a much better consumer experience by dropping prices, and supporting higher bandwidth products,” BSCC CEO Russell Robbins said.

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