FEATURE STORY

Connecting the Unconnected in Rural Papua New Guinea

September 29, 2015

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Taraka Mala, the Chief of Village and “Guardian” providing security for the gated tower with his family.


STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • In 2009, only 20 percent of Papua New Guinea's territory was covered by mobile phone networks. Since then, telecommunications service providers have embarked on aggressive network rollout, providing telecommunications to more citizens. However, many remote areas remained unserved or under-served.
  • The Project, supported by the World Bank, and managed by PNG’s National ICT Authority financed the installation of mobile base stations in 59 sites in remote areas providing basic telecom services to about half a million Papua New Guineans.
  • This project combined with existing investments by mobile operators, is expected to boost total population coverage to over 90 percent by the end of 2015.

Papua New Guinea is often referred to as “the land of the unexpected.” It is strikingly diverse, organized in small, fragmented social groups, with more than 800 ethnic groups speaking over 800 languages –thought to be more than any other country in the world. 

Almost 85 percent of the country’s approximately seven million people live in rural areas that include remote highland areas and far-flung islands. These areas remain difficult and costly to provide basic services and develop infrastructure, including electricity, telecommunications, and roads. For example, the capital, Port Moresby is not linked by road to any of the other major population centers, except for Kerema, the capital of Gulf Province, and many villages in the highlands can only be reached by light aircraft or on foot.

In 2009, Papua New Guinea was one of the least-connected countries in the world. Only 20 percent of territory was covered by mobile voice services. A World Bank-financed project, combined with existing initiatives by mobile operators, is expected to boost total population coverage to over 90 percent of the population by the end of 2015.

This initiative, called the Rural Communications Project, has been installing mobile base stations in 59 sites across all four regions of the country since 2014. It is part of a larger US$15 million project that aims to improve access to telecommunications infrastructure and basic telephony services in remote areas of Papua New Guinea, reaching up to 500,000 people.

The small village of Kore is one of the places that has benefited from this project.

Kore is in the country’s Rigo District in its Central Province, and has a population of around 400. Most villagers are engaged in subsistence-level farming, producing crops such as banana, watermelon, pumpkin, and corn.

Until January 2015, Kore had no access to any form of telecommunications services. Villagers who owned a device had to climb to the top of a hill to receive weak mobile signals from the closest cell phone tower in Hula, which is approximately 25 kilometers away.


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The project has financed the installation of mobile base stations in 59 sites in some of the most remote and isolated areas of the country providing basic telecom services to about half a million Papua New Guineans.


The village’s isolation is illustrated in many ways:  lengthy travel times for purchases of agricultural inputs or other goods, limited access to news and information, limited local job opportunities or information about opportunities elsewhere, and infrequent communication with family members. Now, thanks to the project, Kore and eight other surrounding villages benefit from a strong mobile signal from a brand new mobile base station tower installed by Digicel, the contracted service provider.

Taraka Mala, the Chief of Village and “Guardian” providing security for the gated tower with his family says that the villagers are starting to reap the benefits of the new services. 

“Now we can just make calls to Port Moresby to order seeds and fertilizers instead of making a whole day trip to find and purchase them. An average household is spending between 30 to 50 PGK (US$10 -18) monthly on their mobile phones. This is creating a demand for selling phone credits in the village. There is an entrepreneurial senior lady who has started selling top up cards in Kore.”

The Gamara family mentioned that mobile phone services have particularly been helpful in emergency situations (e.g., medical). Gapi, the father, is a public motor vehicle driver who spends most of his time transporting passengers up and down the highway while Vanuga, the mother, stays home with their children.

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The Gamara Family

"My wife and I both own a mobile phone, and I am now able to communicate with my family while on the road,” says Gapi.

These improvements are being replicated in previously isolated localities all across the country where the new services are being deployed.

“The World Bank is pleased to see how this project, in partnership with the private sector, is improving the livelihoods of the rural population. Mobile phones and the Internet will become critical drivers for innovations in improving service delivery in rural communities, including health, education, and other services.” says Stefanie Stallmeister, World Bank Country Manager for Papua New Guinea. 

Challenges

Every success story is not without its fair share of challenges. Kore village currently has no access to electricity, and so the tower needs to be equipped with solar panels to sustain the service. It is, at times, susceptible to interruptions caused by cyclones and seasonal strong winds.

“The cyclone that hit us earlier this year blew away six out of the 24 solar panels set at this tower,” said Mala. Digicel and the National ICT Authority (NICTA), the implementing agency of the project, are working closely with the villages to keep service disruptions as minimal as possible.

Looking to the future

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A villager’s mobile phone being charged at the solar powered charging station funded by Digicel.
In Kore village, Digicel has directly funded the setup of a solar based charging station, which allows villagers to charge their phones free of charge (photo). Mala had opened his home to be used to set up the charging station for the villagers.

“Some villagers initially opposed to building the tower in our village, saying the solar panel and the radiation might spoil our farms. Now each of the 40-50 households in the village has at least one mobile phone. We feel very privileged. ” says Mala.

Though still limited to voice and the 2G functionality, the villagers are now enjoying their new “connected” status. The new services are linking villagers to new economic activities and are helping families stay connected.

“The government is committed to addressing the social and economic challenges of the rural communities. With the project’s support, NICTA is already initiating the next stage to combine forces again with the private sector to improve Internet access in these areas,” says Kila Gulo-Vui, Acting Director of the Universal Access and Services Secretariat at NICTA.

The villagers we spoke to were not familiar with the term “internet,” but they were looking forward to further advancements – perhaps starting with the capacity to watch rugby on television and on their mobile phones.

 

The village’s isolation is illustrated in many ways:  lengthy travel times for purchases of agricultural inputs or other goods, limited access to news and information, limited local job opportunities or information about opportunities elsewhere, and infrequent communication with family members. Now, thanks to the project, Kore and eight other surrounding villages benefit from a strong mobile signal from a brand new mobile base station tower installed by Digicel, the contracted service provider.

Taraka Mala, the Chief of Village and “Guardian” providing security for the gated tower with his family says that the villagers are starting to reap the benefits of the new services. 

“Now we can just make calls to Port Moresby to order seeds and fertilizers instead of making a whole day trip to find and purchase them. An average household is spending between 30 to 50 PGK (US$10 -18) monthly on their mobile phones. This is creating a demand for selling phone credits in the village. There is an entrepreneurial senior lady who has started selling top up cards in Kore.”

The Gamara family mentioned that mobile phone services have particularly been helpful in emergency situations (e.g., medical). Gapi, the father, is a public motor vehicle driver who spends most of his time transporting passengers up and down the highway while Vanuga, the mother, stays home with their children.

Image
The Gamara Family

"My wife and I both own a mobile phone, and I am now able to communicate with my family while on the road,” says Gapi.

These improvements are being replicated in previously isolated localities all across the country where the new services are being deployed.

“The World Bank is pleased to see how this project, in partnership with the private sector, is improving the livelihoods of the rural population. Mobile phones and the Internet will become critical drivers for innovations in improving service delivery in rural communities, including health, education, and other services.” says Stefanie Stallmeister, World Bank Country Manager for Papua New Guinea. 

Challenges

Every success story is not without its fair share of challenges. Kore village currently has no access to electricity, and so the tower needs to be equipped with solar panels to sustain the service. It is, at times, susceptible to interruptions caused by cyclones and seasonal strong winds.

“The cyclone that hit us earlier this year blew away six out of the 24 solar panels set at this tower,” said Mala. Digicel and the National ICT Authority (NICTA), the implementing agency of the project, are working closely with the villages to keep service disruptions as minimal as possible.

Looking to the future

Image
A villager’s mobile phone being charged at the solar powered charging station funded by Digicel.
In Kore village, Digicel has directly funded the setup of a solar based charging station, which allows villagers to charge their phones free of charge (photo). Mala had opened his home to be used to set up the charging station for the villagers.

“Some villagers initially opposed to building the tower in our village, saying the solar panel and the radiation might spoil our farms. Now each of the 40-50 households in the village has at least one mobile phone. We feel very privileged. ” says Mala.

Though still limited to voice and the 2G functionality, the villagers are now enjoying their new “connected” status. The new services are linking villagers to new economic activities and are helping families stay connected.

“The government is committed to addressing the social and economic challenges of the rural communities. With the project’s support, NICTA is already initiating the next stage to combine forces again with the private sector to improve Internet access in these areas,” says Kila Gulo-Vui, Acting Director of the Universal Access and Services Secretariat at NICTA.

The villagers we spoke to were not familiar with the term “internet,” but they were looking forward to further advancements – perhaps starting with the capacity to watch rugby on television and on their mobile phones.