The game changer

Listen to this article:

Dr Amanda Watson. Picture: SUPPLIED

Starlink, a subsidiary of Space X owned by tech billionaire Elon Musk, is now Fiji’s newest Internet Service Provider and is slated to be a harbinger of significant improvement in Internet connectivity in rural and remote Fiji.

The Fiji Times sought the views of Australian National University research fellow Dr Amanda Watson.

Dr Watson’s research interests include digital technology in the Pacific, mobile phones in Papua New Guinea and strategic uses of information and communication technologies in development efforts.

FT: Your thoughts on this development?

Dr Watson: This is a very interesting development. I think it’s very interesting. I think that Starlink being issued a licence to operate Internet services in Fiji could offer some competition for the existing Internet Service Providers or ISPs. And I imagine those existing operators will be trying to work out right now exactly what this means for them, their business models, their pricing offerings and so on so yes, I think it’s quite an interesting development.

FT: It’s not clear at this point whether Starlink will be working with other telcos.

Dr Watson: My understanding of the technology is they do not need local partners. They can simply sell their equipment, people can buy the Starlink kit and set them up themselves and then access the Starlink Internet data using Starlink’s network of Low-Earth Orbit satellites. The part that I have a question about is how much did Starlink pay for the licence because that’s something that would be interesting to know about.

FT: We’ve asked the Government whether the spectrum was auctioned.

Dr Watson: I would say there would be different views about how much a government should charge for a licence and for spectrum. Some analysts and commentators take the view that in the interest of benefits for the consumers, the government should not charge anything or should just charge a small amount to encourage companies to come in and provide more options to the citizens of the country. Other analysts and commentators would argue that the government should charge as much as they can because that would help with revenue for the government’s business, to cover the costs of operating the telecommunications regulator and other related costs like that, so there would be differing views as to how much government should charge for a new entry and certainly I think it’s very interesting to consider what this means. Is it something where someone should be charged the same, irrespective of technology? I mean, this is a new type of technology. LEO technologies are quite new. So does that mean that the Government might want to look at or is a licence to operate an Internet Service Provider the same cost irrespective of the technology being used? So those are some of the questions. I don’t know that there are answers. There would be differing views even within countries, let alone between countries.

FT: Interesting that Starlink may not need other operators to interconnect, etc

Dr Watson: That’s my understanding, yes. Because we’re not talking about a telecommunications provider or a mobile network operator that’s going to be offering telephone calls and text messaging. We’re talking about Internet only. My understanding is that consumers are able to purchase the equipment and set themselves up and start accessing the Internet. Which could be quite useful for small business operators around Fiji. I’m thinking of small resorts, dive resorts, different places like that could probably set up Internet relatively quickly and easily using Starlink equipment and just paying Starlink directly without needing to go through a local company as I understand it.

FT: Some people are already catching it here in Fiji using kits they bought in Australia. What are the implications Pacific telcos who have invested so much in infrastructure?

Dr Watson: I haven’t done any research on any of the points you’re asking but first of all, it doesn’t surprise me to hear that someone could operate a Starlink kit that they purchased for operation in Australia or New Zealand in Fiji because the kit is simply to access the Internet from the satellites that are at a much lower orbit than other satellites. So in theory, the kit should be able to pick up the signal irrespective of where the person is. That makes sense to me, although I don’t understand whether that is actually correct or not. What I would say is this is a very fast moving field. The technology field is constantly changing. It’s difficult for someone like me or someone like you to try to keep on top of all the developments because the technology is constantly changing. Low Earth Orbit technology is quite new and there are various companies looking at or trying to LEO satellite internet technology and Starlink is the most wellknown.

FT: LEO has arrived to the Pacific. How will it change things?

Dr Watson: I guess just to make the point that it is a different technology to what has gone before. The Kacific satellite might be
more well known to some of your readers. Kacific is a geostationary satellite situated above the Pacific and so as the earth turns, the Kacific satellite’s orbit matches the movement of the earth such that Kacific stays above the Pacific region and therefore offers services to the Pacific island countries. LEO satellites are different. It’s quite a different technology and I believe that Starlink has quite a lot of them and is planning to have more. It’s quite a different technology, different again of course to, say what Digicel and ATH are doing where they have satellite or cable Internet coming in and then they’re transmitting it through mobile telephone towers. And perhaps domestic undersea cables and underground cables possibly. So it’s quite a different technology. I would also perhaps add that for the average consumer
in Fiji, an individual, a small business operator or someone like that, they’re not really interested in which technology is best or even the technical differences between the technologies, the average consumer just wants Internet that’s reliable and affordable and so I think for the average consumer, they’ll be weighing up the costs, how much does the Starlink equipment cost, how much does the Starlink Internet cost, is it going to be faster or slower than the Internet they currently have access to and so on. So for the average person, they don’t really care about which technology it is, I suspect, but more like what their Internet quality is like when they’re trying to send their business emails or look up something on the Internet or check their favourite social media page or that kind of thing.