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Telecommunications on a Small Atoll (Niue)


Imagine having to live without electric power or telecommunications. We have become so dependent on these two utilities that we simply cannot do without them. This week our Editor on the atoll visited Telecom Niue to find out from the Chairman of the Board and from the Acting CEO where we are at with the 4G network, marine cable, fiber optics and Internet Services.

The Radio Shack

It started as the radio shack, a small hut perched on top of the cliff overlooking the landing in Alofi. Two hundred metres to the south was the residence of the New Zealand administrator, the so called Resident Commissioner. The year was 1924-25, a time when a number of ships were wrecked on Niue’s reef but news of the event would take several months to reach the outside world. Wellington finally agreed to the installation of radio equipment but the initial point of contact was with the NZ Administration in Apia.

Direct communications with New Zealand did not happen until World War 2 when a bigger generator was available and a more powerful transmitter was installed. Anecdotal evidence would suggest that even back then, the island had better communications with the outside world than with each village, a situation that existed up until the late 1960s.

From a Shack to a Department

In time the little radio shack expanded to become the Radio Department offering not only a telegram service to NZ and points beyond but also a telephone service around the island. There are many on the island who can still remember the crank handle and the party line and the fact that there would be only one telephone in each village located at the residence of the village constable. Later, other subscribers joined the party line, usually someone with standing in the Niue Public Service. Because anyone connected to the party line can eavesdrop on someone else’s conversation, it quickly became a great source of information, or perhaps more accurately, a great source of village gossip.

With improvement in equipment, the single party line was soon replaced by dedicated lines with a manual exchange. What this meant was that all lines were connected to a single terminal – the Telephone Exchange at the Niue Post Office. Subscribers would call the Exchange and request a connection to the appropriate party.

In the late 1980’s the Radio Department in conjunction with the Niue Post Office offered an overseas call service to New Zealand. At the best of times, this service was cumbersome and often unusable because of atmospheric interference but at least for urgent matters it was possible to communicate with relatives in New Zealand.

The Age of Satellites – Telecom Niue

Several years later, the island finally ditched its radio-telephone service for overseas communications in favour of satellite communications. A parallel development was the introduction of dial-up island-wide telephone system. The small isolated little atoll has finally caught up with the modern world. In the comfort of your own living room, you can pick up your telephone and call New York or London or Wellington. At times it was easier to call those far off places than it was to call Liku or Mutalau from Alofi! Internal communications was still a challenge with broken or noisy lines, particularly for the villages on the east from Mutalau to Hakupu. The complaints from these villages would continue up till now!

Pretty soon, another new development appeared on the block – cell-phones, not the 2G variety but old fashion analogue. The old Radio Department had long disappeared to be replaced by Telecom Niue. By this time also another new development had entered the market – the Internet, introduced to the island by IUSN – Internet User Society Niue. Therein lies another tale for another time.

While the analogue cell-phone network worked well, the coverage was limited to Alofi and some of the villages on the western side of the island. But within a very short period of time, the rapid advancement in telecommunications technology meant that the system had become obsolete. Enter the age of digital technology and the arrival of 2G with a new set of challenges.

The Digital Challenge

To find out the latest developments in telecommunications, Talaniue spoke with the Chairman of the Board Avi Rubin and the Acting CEO Brett Collier.

Currently, Telecom Niue is providing ADSL, 2G and 4G according the Brett Collier. “We have already identified that our 4G network are facing some difficulties. Telecom recognises that there isn’t full coverage for the island and so we’ve ordered the equipment to take care of that”.

In 2018 Telecom Niue erected two tall towers at Kaho in Avatele and at Lakepa. The new installation will be using the more advanced 4G network. The two towers herald the beginning of a new era of communications for the island, or so the potential subscribers were told. The new service would not only provide island-wide coverage but it will also offer a much faster Internet connection. They were right – but only up to a point. The Internet connection was fast in comparison to anything hitherto available, think steam-driven dial-up speed. In practical terms, we had gone from crawling to walking almost overnight. Subscribers were ecstatic at the ability to stream movies largely without interruptions. Unfortunately the promise of a better coverage for the whole island did not happen. Once more, the eastern villages were the ones most affected.

How did this come about? Why wasn’t there coverage for the whole island? Where was the problem? It appears that the engineers responsible for designing the installation had not given enough attention to foliage attenuation.

“The Niue bush is extremely dense so it effectively blocked the signal despite increasing the power to the maximum permissible. This became fairly obvious after testing”, said Brett Collier. “We’ve identified that we need to install transmit-receiver equipment at Hakupu, Liku, Mutalau and Hikutavake. A new tower will have to be built in Liku. At Mutalau we will be using the existing mast at the sea track.”

“While we cannot guarantee coverage for the whole island – no country has that kind of coverage – we’re fairly certain that the majority of the country will be covered. We have engaged the services of a transmission specialist who will do the necessary due diligence on the sites we have proposed.”

Brett Collier gave his assurance that Telecom Niue had not bought a lemon with 4G as some people on the island are advocating. “This same system is being used in New Zealand and Australia and its working very well. We face a few problems with our 4G network but we’re working to rectify these.” He confirmed that the 2G network will continue to operate for those who cannot connect to 4G, but in time, the old network will be phased out.

Subscribers using landline and ADSL will be able to continue using this for both telephone and Internet. So what about the oft heard complaint that a lot of Internet data is lost through a bad copper wire connection.

Brett Collier: “A faulty copper wire will never cause you to lose data. If the line is bad, the system will just turn itself off. It is a myth that a faulty or degraded line will cause you to lose data – simply not true. What we do know is that it costs a lot to maintain those copper wires.”

“That is why 4G is good. If you’re on ADSL and you suspect that something is eating up all the data, it is more than likely that some of the apps [applications] are updating data without you knowing.”

The next major development for Telecom Niue is the under-sea cable. This cable will run from Samoa to Tahiti with spurs to Niue, Rarotonga, Aitutaki and Borabora. To connect to a main supply cable, Samoa will run the Tui Cable to Fiji where it will connect to a cable that runs from Sydney to the USA. According to the Chairman of Telecom Niue Avi Rubin, the decision to join the Manatua Consortium was a policy decision made by the Niue Government.

“We’re looking at 2020 for the cable to become operational”, said Rubin and added that one noticeable benefit will be the faster rate of data transmission. Will there be a likely decrease in the cost to subscribers? “Our policy is to provide an affordable service to our customers. If there is a cost benefit when we have the marine cable then we will work to pass that on to our subscribers”.

One development that is not likely to happen is fibre optics to the homes, despite the fact that the cable runs around the island. The cost of getting fibre optics to each individual home is too expensive according to Collier so the cable will only be connected to the main utilities.

For the more mature citizens of our island who just want a telephone without the ‘fancy stuff’, you are not forgotten. Once the coverage for the island is sorted, Telecom Niue will offer subscribers a fixed wireless landline. What this is, is a telephone with a handset that can connect directly via an aerial to the 4G network. For the fishermen, there will be on offer a more rugged and water proof phone.

All that’s needed now is to sort out the 4G network, and then get the marine cable on shore.

[Next week, Talaniue will look at electric power and solar energy.]