Digital transformation involves the use of digital technology to create new or modified business processes, culture and customer experiences to meet changing business and market requirements. Mobile phone technology has brought about significant social and economic changes to Pacific Island countries, not only making communication easier but also changing the way people do business.
The Pacific stands poised to enter deeper into the digital transformation era, with mobile technology playing a key role in this shift. It is therefore vital that mobile connectivity challenges be addressed to ensure that Pacific Island countries reap the rewards of this transformation.
Impacts of mobile phone technology in the Pacific
Mobile phone technology is transforming economies across the Pacific:
Mobile money services available are helping to facilitate financial services and financial inclusion across the region, with 51% of the adult population of Fiji, Samoa, Solomon Islands and Tonga holding a mobile money account (although less than 10% of these accounts are currently active).
Mobile advertising is enabling businesses across the Pacific reach a wide customer base in a cost-effective way. Mobile operators have designed services and platforms which now allow businesses to reach a more targeted customer base through mobile phones.
In Papua New Guinea, prior to 2015, most consumers in rural areas had very little or no access to paid television services. “Pay TV” services launched by the largest mobile operator in PNG in 2015 has since allowed consumers in remote parts of PNG the opportunity to use their mobile phones to subscribe to a television plan for the first time, illustrating how versatile mobile technology can be.
Health and education sectors in Papua New Guinea have partnered with NGOs to collect data from surveys conducted through the use of mobile phones to obtain better insight in these areas. Other Pacific Island countries have also used mobile phone technology for similar purposes.
The high cost of internet in PNG is often seen as an obstacle for small and medium enterprises looking to start up or grow their businesses. Infrastructure development in this area is making internet and phone technology more accessible, reliable and cost effective, boosting this transformation further. The Coral Sea Cable, a 4,700km long fibre optic submarine cable system which will link Sydney to Port Moresby and Honiara, is expected to deliver faster, cheaper and more reliable communications infrastructure. The completion of the Coral Sea Cable should see the cost of internet reduced, resulting in greater opportunities for businesses.
Obstacles to digital transformation
In its 2019 Pacific Mobile Economy Report, the GSM Association detailed the challenges that the Pacific must overcome to take advantage of the digital transformation. A major challenge to increased mobile connectivity has been infrastructure. Some countries have not yet completed the digital switchover process with no allocated spectrum in the digital dividend band (700 MHz) for mobile services.
The geography of most Pacific Island countries makes it difficult for towers to be constructed in remote areas. Papua New Guinea has a rugged terrain, which has made the construction and maintenance of mobile towers difficult. In some parts of Papua New Guinea there is little or no mobile network connection because of the logistical problems involved in constructing a tower and maintaining it.
A digital transformation will invariably mean that there will be a greater demand for spectrum. Some mobile networks in the Pacific have been upgraded from 2G and 3G sites to 4G sites, demonstrating a growing demand for spectrum as mobile operators strive to provide their customers with reliable data networks. Regulators in the Pacific will need to ensure that they allocate sufficient spectrum so that mobile operators can take advantage of the mobile transformation.
Legislation could also be harmonised across Pacific Island countries so that there is a consistent legal framework in place which will encourage investment and give consumers greater confidence in the telecommunications sector. Further, as technology becomes more sophisticated and the Pacific has greater internet connectivity Pacific Island countries need to enhance their respective frameworks to address some of the modern-day challenges that technology poses, for example, cyber security, the standardisation of digital trade and privacy and data protection laws. Earlier this year, the Australian Government released its 2019 progress report on the Australian Government’s achievements as part of Australia’s International Cyber Engagement Strategy, which included a number of Pacific focussed initiatives. These initiatives are aimed at helping to strengthen cybercrime legislation in the region and, among other things, building capacity in the Pacific to align information management system standards and digital trade standards.
Digital transformation has the potential to effect real, tangible benefits across the Pacific region, with mobile technology delivering internet access to previously unconnected and remote areas in the Pacific. Already we have seen significant investment in the infrastructure required to further enhance digital inclusion and mobile connectivity in the Pacific.
However, with low mobile internet penetration rates and the challenges associated with realising a full digital transformation like infrastructure, affordable internet prices and effective laws and regulations, technology advancements in the Pacific are incremental in their nature.
Despite this, as technology progressively improves and the business landscape evolves, businesses need to position themselves to remain ahead of the ‘technology curve’ and should look to ways in which their business model and processes could further leverage the power of technology. In doing so, just as technology advances, so too will the laws which regulate their use and proliferation and it’s important that businesses and users remain ‘on top’ of these trends.
The Pacific Legal Network has experience advising the clients in the technology and telecommunications sector in the Pacific.
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 GSMA, The Mobile Economy Pacific Islands 2019 (2019) GSMA Intelligence <https://www.gsmaintelligence.com/research/?file=e09ae8518a321de5f379897ae4d773ea&download>.
 Australian Aid, About the Project, Coral Sea Cable System <https://www.coralseacablesystem.com.au/>
 Australia’s International Cyber Engagement Strategy, 2019 Progress Report (2019) Department of Foreign Affairs and Trading <https://dfat.gov.au/international-relations/themes/cyber-affairs/aices/chapters/2019_progress_report.html>