Speech at the 6th Asia Pacific Telecommunity (APT) Policy and Regulation Forum for the Pacific – Attorney General Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum

Bula Vinaka, Good morning and a very special welcome to our visitors to Fiji.

Welcome all to the 6th annual Asia-Pacific Telecommunity Policy and Regulation Forum for the Pacific.

On behalf of the Fijian Government and Fijian people, I would like to say that it’s a great pleasure to host this important regional meeting for the third year in a row.

Indeed, the spirit of Pacific union is alive and well, in particular this week. Yesterday, we celebrated the launch of both the inaugural Pacific Islands Development Forum as well as the inaugural Melanesian Spearhead Group Trade Show.

As our Prime Minister said yesterday morning at the opening of the Pacific Islands Development Forum, and I quote, “We are building a new framework for Pacific islanders -wherever they live – to confront the many challenges and opportunities that face us. And we are doing it in the Pacific Way – through genuine consultation between Governments, civil society groups and the business community.” Unquote.

This, ladies and gentlemen, represents a very significant departure from the past. Belief in cooperation and collaboration has always been strong in the Pacific, but yesterday, the Prime Minister signaled a new approach. One that calls for a closer and more inclusive Pacific union, free from outside influence, to seek common solutions to shared problems. The Prime Minster also acknowledged the fact that Pacific Small Islands Developing States have formed an alliance with the Asia Group at the United Nations.

In terms of ICT, the matter of regional cooperation couldn’t be more important. Forums like this are crucial because they allow us to share experiences, discuss challenges, and spread knowledge that is unique to our respective countries.

That’s not to say that our aspirations for technology are different than they are elsewhere. In the Pacific, we share the optimism of the rest of the developing world that information and communication technology can revolutionise the lives of our people through empowering them with information and opportunity – that it can break down barriers between those at the center and those on the margins – the divide between rich and poor, the divide between the urban and rural.

People can only be equal if they are equally informed. People can only be equal if they have equal access to their government and the services it provides. People can only be equal if they are connected with their fellow citizens.

Developing nations the world over see the potential ICT development has to help people rise above the limitations that nature would impose; to unleash every human being’s potential; and to give each person greater control over his or her future.

The hope and promise of new technology and increased penetration is a constant throughout the developing world. And, certainly, the importance and significance of “connecting” a person from a Small Island State is the same as it is for a person living in Africa, Europe, Asia or the Americas.

But many of the similarities and useful comparisons end there.

Put simply, the volume we are talking about in terms of connectivity, the potential of connectivity, and the consequent government response and private sector investment is on a completely different scale in our region.

I understand, for example, that India has about 10 million new mobile connections a month. That’s more than the population base of the entire South Pacific. On one hand, Fiji, for example, the second largest country of the region, has a population of less than 1 million. Niue, on the other, has little more than 1,000 people.

This means that the nature of both public and private sector investment is different. It means that governments of Small Island States need to be a lot more innovative in terms of attracting investment and making sure markets are indeed viable.

But it’s not just a matter of volume. In the Pacific, we are also faced with the challenge of connecting populations separated by vast expanses of ocean. Indeed,if we do not connect all within our countries then the digital age would create even greater disparities.

While there’s obviously much to learn from the greater international community, it’s nevertheless clear that our unique circumstances and challenges make such forums very important.

Of course, an important part of this process is updating each other on the ICT developments in each of our countries, and I am happy to see that the first session this morning begins with presentations from Tonga, Kiribati, Samoa, and Solomon Islands.

I have also been asked to share Fiji’s experiences as far as ICT developments are concerned. .

Ladies and gentlemen ,

The Bainimarama Government’s reforms – including those in the ICT sector – have been guided by three key principles:

• First: Empowering Fijians, be it through education, financial inclusion, job creation, provision of basic services, or, of course, through connectivity.
• Second: Creating a legal regulatory framework that is fair, efficient, and transparent, built on best international practices.
• Third: Removing systemic corruption and inefficiency.

It is through adherence to these principles and the implementation of them that Fiji has made great strides, in particular in the last few years, in connecting our people through mobile and the Internet.

In fact, recently, Fiji’s performance in delivering ICT services and infrastructure to its citizens has been ranked amongst the World’s most dynamic by the International Telecommunication Union. In the ITU’s annual review of the delivery of ICT infrastructure and services to the populations of more than 150 countries, Fiji was given special recognition. Fiji tied for the third largest improvement of any country, moving up five places to 88th.

The ITU attributed Fiji’s high ranking to strong growth in mobile-broadband penetration; extension of 3G coverage; the development of Fiji’s – and the Pacific’s – first national broadband plan; a commitment to making Internet access affordable; and the expansion of e-Government services.

We have liberalised the telecommunications market and introduced actual competition in Fiji for the first time. This has driven up access to mobile services and made mobile connectivity affordable. Using traditional methods of measuring, we have a penetration rate in excess of 100%. However, it does not mean that everybody has mobile phones or mobile phone connectivity. And mobile coverage – including 3G – now extends to 95% of the country.

But we’re not stopping there. Our goal isa 100% coverage. In order to accomplish this, we’ve designed a Universal Access Program that will offer subsidies to companies to encourage them to provide services in areas that are not considered to be commercially viable. We will begin advertising for this soon and expect to have contracts awarded by the end of the year.

One of the major problems of providing service to remote areas is the huge costs for companies to establish the necessary infrastructure. The sites are hard to get to, they are hard to build on, and hard to service. The rate of returns, at least initially, is not attractive at all.

So in a major new announcement, the Bainimarama Government is currently finalising laws that will facilitate infrastructure sharing between service providers.

This means that a company will now be able to pay a fee to share another company’s pre-existing infrastructure – such as cell towers – rather than having to build their own. And of course the existing cell tower owner will have to make it available to others. This will dramatically reduce operating costs for service providers and in turn should lead to better coverage and more choice for Fijians, especially those living in rural communities. It also reduces the environmental impact of constructing duplicate infrastructure.

And it means that new players will now be able to enter the market without having to construct their own towers. More competition means better competitive pricing and better services.

Ladies and gentlemen,

We’re especially proud of our special program to increase access to the Internet for poorer Fijians living in remote areas. “Telecentres” or Government Telecentreshave been set up using schools in rural areas throughout the country, to give access not only to school children but to members of the local community, many of whom have never had access to the Internet before. We buy them new computers, give them free connection to internet and also webcams and scanners.

The condition with which we put it up with schools is that they have to provide access to members of the public after school hours into the evenings.

The 10 Telecentres that are currently up and running have already connected close to 30,000 Fijians. By the end of the year, we expect to have more than 20 in operation that will provide Internet access to more than 60,000 Fijians – including 5,000 schoolchildren.

In last year’s Budget, we eliminated all duty on smartphones to make them more affordable for ordinary Fijians. We expect this will dramatically improve access to data services and the Internet with the expansion of broadband access through mobile phones.

We’ve also completely overhauled the way that spectrum is allocated in Fiji. It’s essential that this process, above all, be transparent and deliberate. We have ensured this by the implementation of new laws, by rationalising allocation and by pursuing digitisation. In fact, Fiji has worked closely with the ITU in developing a roadmap for its analogue to digital broadcasting migration, and has also ensured best world practices in spectrum band planning by collaborating with spectrum experts from New Zealand.

As we all know, spectrum becomes a crucial determining factor for accessibility to broadband. The Bainimarama Government has implemented aNational Spectrum Allocation Plan, which allows us to audit, plan and reallocate spectrum to ensure fair distribution to service providers and encourage competition amongst them.

Before the Bainimarama Government took office, there was no rationale for spectrum allocation. This allowed for spectrum hogging and anti-competitive behavior. By comparison, the manner in which we have allocated 3G spectrum for mobile services has been commended by the ITU.

And just about two weeks ago, we concluded Fiji’s first-ever spectrum auction that raised more than $5 million. The auction has opened the door for the introduction of 4G LTE technology to Fiji. We must remember it is the people who own the airwaves. It is up to Government to make sure that they receive fair compensation in return for the right of a company to use the public’s airwaves.

We are also in the process of establishing Internet exchange points –(IXP) – in Fiji. As things stand, all of Fiji’s internet traffic between networks is exchanged offshore. For example, if I send an email to someone in Fiji, that email leaves Fiji, often to Australia or the USA, is exchanged and then returns to Fiji. This is both costly and inefficient. It is an imperative, therefore, that we have our own IXP in order to reduce costs improve services, and, of course, improve speed.

The next focus of Government will be to ensure that operators have adequate access to fibre for backhaul capacity. Consequently, this will eliminate the bottle neck of speed as services are expended into previously un-served areas.

But our vision is not just for ourselves – the Bainimarama Government believes that Fiji is well positioned to be the hub for the region-wide broadband system. We have the infrastructure to support it.

In the South Pacific, the Southern Cross Cable has a terminus in Fiji. In fact, just a few months ago the Ile De Re, which is the cable ship, laid the fibre-optic cable that connected Tonga to Fiji, opening the door to high speed Internet for our Pacific neighbours.

All of this, ladies and gentlemen,has been done to world’s best practice, coupled with zero tolerance for corruption. Our holistic approach to market reform and service provision has delivered results for the Fijian people.

Key to this has been the understanding that ICT reform does not take place in isolation. At the GSMA Mobile World Congress in Barcelona this past February, where H.E. Prime Minister of Tonga was also there, I remember a representative from Vodafone explaining that, in Afghanistan, one of the reasons why 3G was not living up to expectations of increased speed was the inconsistent fluctuation of electricity.

ICT development is part of a much larger program of infrastructure development and improvement. This includes electricity , water and roads. Across a broad front, the Bainimarama Government believes that strategic partnership with the private sector is the best way to deliver quality, value, and transparency. ICT is no different.

Governments must play a facilitating role by establishing the right price for spectrum, offer duty concessions, put in place an attractive taxation regime, provide consistency in policy and laws and provide a facilitating role for investment.

Mobile phone companies and vendors must also play their part and adhere to standards. They should not see smaller countries as frontier territories where anything goes. That’s why the Bainimarama Government has unreservedly ratified the United Nations Convention against Corruption and established the Fiji Independent Commission against Corruption.

Distinguished ladies and gentlemen,

With those words, it is now my pleasure to once again welcome you to Fiji. I hope that your deliberations are productive, and I urge you to take the time to enjoy Fiji’s world renowned hospitality.

I now have much pleasure in declaring the 6th APT Policy and Regulation Forum for the Pacific open.

Vinaka vakalevu. Thank you.

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