Remarks: SG Puna keynote to PITA Business Forum, Expo 2022

Salutations

The PITA Chair and Board, PITA members, and participants at this 26th AGM Business Expo and Conference – a very good morning, Kia Orana and Bula Vinaka to you all !

2. It gives me great pleasure to attend and give an opening address today. I recall doing the same, back in 2017 when PITA held its 21st AGM and Trade Expo in Rarotonga. It is great to be in familiar circles and to share reflections and updates today.

3. As both a former Prime Minister and Minister responsible for Telecommunications, I am acutely aware of the opportunities that this sector has. It offers massive potential for our people and our region, and key to that is bridging the digital divide.

4. Creating pathways to facilitate and build on opportunities is crucial. To be able to identify areas of investments and other resourcing, it is important to know where we are at in the Pacific. We cannot close the digital divide if we are not able to measure it. And we cannot connect the unconnected if we do not know who they are, where they live, and why they don’t engage or use the services. Underpinning this is the scope of our policies – at national and regional levels – and how successful and practical they are to offer solutions.

Infrastructure
5. A key focus area is infrastructure: the nature of the sector is such that it requires immense investments – whether it is for fixed line services, mobile networks, for example. Adding to this, is the complexities around addressing issues like financing and ownership, access and pricing, and human and institutional capacities.

6. The volcanic eruption in Tonga earlier this year again demonstrated our vulnerability. It also highlighted the fragility of the modern-day internet, and the threats to infrastructure from natural disasters. We are a region prone to natural disasters and the frequency and severity are likely to increase due to climate change. And all of you here know the extent of damages these causes.

7. Whilst some countries are serviced by many submarine cables, countries like Tonga have the lone undersea cable that connects the country to the rest of the world; and this was damaged during the eruption. This revealed the huge financial and social consequences for the country and underscores the importance of full security and redundancy. I believe this is an important lesson for future investment in ICT infrastructure in our region. We have to factor in worst-case-disaster scenarios into our infrastructure investment plans to ensure they withstand the most severe disasters.

8. Let me take this opportunity to congratulate your members OPT New Caledonia, and Fiji’s FINTEL as you deployed the second submarine cable, the Gondwana-2, in Suva earlier this month. This is a milestone not just for Fiji and New Caledonia but for the Pacific, demonstrating vision and opportunities. Congratulations to the teams – what a legacy you leave for the Pacific!

9. This new cable can boost regional approaches and develop regional digital cooperation by increasing private sector activities and investments, and creating jobs in data centers, business processing centers, cloud services etc and encouraging more start-ups. We look to Fiji’s Business Process Outsourcing (BPO) industry which employs around 3,000 Fijians and contributes approximately FJ$70 million in foreign exchange annually, according to Investment Fiji.

Accessibility and affordability

10. Another challenge is how do we make services accessible and affordable? According to the GSM Association, in a report titled “Mobile Economy of the Pacific Islands 2019” just 38% of the Pacific population were subscribed to mobile services in 2018. The Pacific trailed behind the broader south-east Asia Pacific regional average of 68% of the population.
11. And Internet access remains expensive and unreliable across the Pacific which makes it challenging especially for private sector development and getting MSMEs to enhance their digital uptake and adoption.

12. According to an ITU report of 2021, there is also a generational gap: 71% of the world’s population aged 15-24 is using the Internet, compared to other age groups. And gender remains a factor: globally, 62% of men use the Internet compared to 57% of women. Women remain digitally marginalised, where online access could potentially have its most powerful effect, including right here in our region.

13. What is it that you can do and how can we at PIFS collaborate with you?

14. It would be remiss of me not to mention to you the 2050 Strategy for the Blue Pacific Continent – the regional blue print our Leaders called for, to protect and secure our Pacific people, place and prospects. This will be launched mid this year by our Leaders. Featured prominently in the 2050 Strategy is Technology and Connectivity, and as the telecoms industry it is timely to give an update of some of the work we are doing and where there could be opportunities for collaboration.

15. Another key document that guides our work is the Pacific Aid for Trade Strategy 2020-2025, which is the blueprint of the regional trade work. Some key features in this Strategy are: e-commerce, quality infrastructure, trade facilitation & services. These offer comprehensive connectivity to promote Pacific trade and private sector development – of which telecoms and ICTs can be a game changer.

16. E-commerce is a priority under the Pacific Aid for Trade Strategy. It has the potential to address some of our most binding constraints. In fact, for certain industries e-commerce can eliminate the tyranny of distance – for example the BPO industry, certain types of cultural industries, and even certain segments of the tourism sector.

17. But it is not only money that the Pacific needs to implement this Strategy. Identifying and attracting the right private sector partners is equally, if not more important. And I take this opportunity to reach out to the PITA members, knowing this includes business entities and firms in the US, Europe and Asia. Within a partnership-building exercise, PITA members can make a real difference for the Pacific.

18. For example, the Regional E-commerce Strategy and Roadmap proposes to develop a regional training program for select Pacific companies in collaboration with leading tech multinationals. The likes of Google, IBM, CISCO, and others have an important role to play in strengthening the Pacific start-up ecosystem. A program leveraging their competencies, network and tools could help develop and expand successive waves of Pacific start-ups.
19. Investments in our people is also key, especially digital skills. Poor digital literacy exposes people to risks linked to the ‘dark side’ of connectivity cyberattacks, scams, fake news, or harmful content.

Investments
20. I know too well the importance of having updated legislations, investment promotion policies and regulations. We need more investment financing facilities particularly for our businesses. This includes blended finance vehicles, and combining donor funding to crowd-in private finance into specific sectors.

21. The ICTs and telecommunications sector can provide opportunities to enhance investment and innovation. This includes developing an ecosystem of entrepreneurs and adapting emerging technologies such as blockchain to address Pacific challenges.

22. When we look at regional outreach and in-country investments, the Amalgamated Telecom Holdings (ATH) provide a good example. As a public company listed on the South Pacific Stock Exchange in Fiji it has mobile networks in American Samoa, Cook Islands, Fiji, Kiribati, Samoa, and Vanuatu. It also operates a philanthropic foundation in Fiji.

23. Whilst this is an expansion strategy of the Group, this also reinforces and demonstrates the Pacific private sectors capacity to support regionalism. It also shows that Pacific governments could work together with telecommunication companies and donors, to build more robust and secure telecommunications networks and markets.

24. There is great momentum and uptake of telecommunications and ICTs, building on from the pandemic. This will accelerate our region’s readiness for technology and e-commerce and will provide new avenues for genuine development to Pacific consumers and businesses.

25. Thank you for the invitation to speak today and wish you all successful deliberations. I also look forward to hearing any updates that may enable us to explore working together.

Meitaki ma’ata, Vinaka vakalevu and thank you. –ENDS

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