ASTCA dedication: Gov pleased about blocking SPIN
Gov. Togiola Tulafono says he “blocked” the American Samoa TeleCommunications Authority (ASTCA) from committing just over $1 million to a now defunct regional undersea fiber optic cable project dubbed SPIN, which was first announced more than five years ago.
The governor made the revelation at Monday’s dedication of the $5.6 million four-story state of the art ASTCA building in Tafuna and it was also at this ceremony that Togiola called on ASTCA to work together with the private sector in developing the telecommunication industry in the territory.
Neither the governor nor ASTCA executive director Aleki Sene Sr. during the dedication drew the spotlight on the quality of the broadband service in the territory, as provided by ASTCA and BlueSky.
A link to a press release on samoanews.com from the One Economy Corporation and New America Foundation identifies America’s Pacific territories “as having the most expensive Internet access in America,” with American Samoa as the worst.
The release that first appeared in a shorter version on Slate.com in May says that One Economy is a global nonprofit that helps low-income people gain access to broadband connections, and the New America Foundation, a think tank that focuses on Internet issues. Both have contributed to the creation of the national broadband map (NBM) by surveying America's Pacific Island territories: Guam, American Samoa, and the Northern Marianas Islands (NMI).
The NBM (www.broadbandmap.gov) is an online tool that identifies areas across the country that are under-served or lack broadband coverage altogether. The creation of this map was funded by the Federal Department of Commerce under American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA). Results of the mapping over the past two years have identified the rural broadband gap that exists in “connection speeds in rural and remote parts of America lag behind the urban centers.”
The press release says that in the process of mapping, they “discovered that a combination of high prices and slow download speeds give our nation's Pacific territories the dubious distinction of having the most expensive Internet access in America.”
“Moreover, while residents are paying for so-called "broadband," measurements of actual — as opposed to advertised-connection speeds show that the typical consumer is receiving service at speeds too slow to support online applications most Americans take for granted.”
ASTCA’s new building, SPIN and the $90 million BLAST project — which will upgrade ASTCA’s old cooper wire infrastructure to fiber optic cable — was seen as a viable solution to American Samoa’s internet problems.
The building started out to be a 30x30 two-story structure located at a one-acre government property at the end of the airport runway and, according to Sene, was originally proposed to house the SPIN network’s landing station. SPIN (South Pacific Information Network) was a French government sponsored fiber optic cable project meant to first connect the French Pacific islands, and then other Pacific islands and territories.
ASTCA executive director Aleki Sene Sr. told the audience during the dedication, which was aired Tuesday night on KVZK-TV that it was during an April 2007 telecom seminar in Noumea, New Caledonia where the SPIN project was announced. Local officials attending the seminar included the governor and Sene.
Following the seminar, Sene said, the governor signed a memorandum of understanding to be part of the SPIN project and the move to build the two-story went forward. However, by the end of 2008 the project was up to three-stories, with Fletcher Construction given the design and building contract for $3.8 million. (Another company that initially showed interested later pulled out leaving only Fletcher.)
However, the decision to relocate the project to the current site was made due to the smoke coming from the McConnell Dowell asphalt plant next to the runway, and the noise from airplanes landing at the Tafuna airport, said Sene. (The asphalt plant closed down several months ago, after public complaints in the area of air and smell pollution, and Samoa News understands the plant has since been relocated within the company’s compound.)
In July 2009, the contract with Fletcher was finalized for $3.8 million for the three-story building, but another floor was added later when the project broke ground in 2010, said Sene.
In his address, Togiola reiterated to those gathered for the occasion that the reason this project first started, was to house the landing site for SPIN, adding that this project is “much greater than the original project which we signed on to.”
“Unfortunately, the SPIN is now defunct,” said Togiola, adding that one thing that the ASTCA board of directors were not happy about, was that “they were going to commit $1.5 million to SPIN and I blocked it.”
“I stopped them from paying SPIN the money. I know Aleki [Sene] was not happy with that. But I did what I thought was right and I’m glad I did. Because SPIN... is [now] non-existent,” said Togiola, who didn’t elaborate as to when he blocked the ASTCA board move.
It was during budget hearings in September 2010 that lawmakers learned that the SPIN project was delayed. But several months later the Fono received word from ASG officials that SPIN no longer exists.
At the dedication, Togiola said the territory had moved forward with the fiber optic cable project in which ASG — with financial support from the U.S. Department of Interior — became one-third owner of the American Samoa Hawai’i Cable LLC, the company that owns and operates the current fiber optic cable with majority ownership by Florida-based eLandia International, whose subsidiary is locally based BlueSky Communications.
Bringing in the fiber optic cable is “one of the best things that we have done for ourselves” he said, “because telecommunications is one of the two top industries that are going to change economic development in American Samoa. There is no doubt about that.”
However, in an interview with One Economy Corporation’s Daniel Calarco, published on line at Engadget.com, Calarco said American Samoa’s cable is a dead end. “It goes from Hawaii to American Samoa, and then AS has a cable to Independent Samoa, but that's about it. It’s a multi-million dollar, 2,500-mile cable that has to be paid for by a few thousand customers. Thus, there are not a lot of people to share the cost,” Calarco told his interviewer, Darren Murph.
The governor said that ASTCA is still looking at fiber optic cable projects. “There are so many of those [fiber optic cable] projects now but I hope that our telecoms will eventually come together to build joint projects, that will make it easier to communicate and make telecommunication better and more efficient for our country,” and he affirmed that telecommunication is a leading industry in revolutionizing the territory’s economic development.
The governor did say that he was glad that he gave his support for this new building project, because with a “good place like this, we can move forward in developing telecommunication.” He also called the building an “icon” and its blueprints can be used for future building projects in both government and private sector.
“...in serving our people, we need to work together,” he told the ASTCA board and management. “I know you’re publicly funded [but] you need to share your technology.”
“You need to share whatever you buy with public funds with other telecom companies so that you can all survive and work well and serve the community better,” he said. “We must. It’s part of our duty as public servants that we look toward projects that will make communication better.”
“We must deliver services that are not delivered by the private sector and along those lines, we cannot undercut their projects, their prices and things that they need to do for their businesses,” he said.
“I urge you to do a better job in working together with our private developers because we all must look to each other to improve the services and make it cost efficient for the people of American Samoa that we all serve,” he said.
According to the governor, it is his “dream” that “we improve telecommunications that will create jobs, that will create industries, that will create wealth and generate economic development for American Samoa.”
And this new building, paid for by the ratepayers, also brings together a modern and technologically- forward design that will embody the nature of the ever-changing telecommunications industry, he added.
The governor also revealed that he had discussions with Sene many times regarding the improvement of the delivery of service to customers. “I wanted to bring in Blackberry, iPod and iPads. I’ve asked him to consider putting money into improving that telecommunication so you can bring in Blackberry from the states and still use them here,” he said and noted that there were some issues regarding this, but didn’t elaborate further.
The press release from the One Economy Corporation and New America Foundation note that Guam is the most fortunate of the American territories, because “it sits at the intersection of several major undersea telecommunications cables, which gives the island access to tremendous bandwidth.”
In contrast, the Northern Marianas Islands, which are only 100 miles north of Guam, “yet their Internet is much slower, and their prices are nearly five times higher than those in Guam. IT&E, the largest internet service provider in the NMI, received a federal stimulus grant to upgrade the undersea cable linking the NMI to Guam. However, prices for consumers have not yet fallen. Moreover, bandwidth in the NMI is so constrained that purchasing higher tiered packages actually increases the price per megabit.
“In American Samoa, the situation is far worse. The American Samoa Telecommunications Authority (ASTCA) does not even offer broadband DSL to residents at speeds of 768 kbps, which the Department of Commerce considers the bare minimum for "broadband" today.
“BlueSky, the only other Internet service provider on American Samoa, is not any faster or cheaper and only offers cable, not DSL.
“ ASTCA does not publicly disclose pricing information, but according to an email from a company representative, residential packages top out at 256 kilobits per second (Kbps), which is not much faster than the typical speed of dial-up phone modem connections on the mainland back in the 1990s. ASTCA's 768 Kbps package for businesses costs a whopping $175 a month, making American Samoa the US territory with the most expensive internet in America.”
Further, according to the press release, “internet performance tests show that the actual speeds available to residents of all U.S. territories is vastly inferior to the mainland and even to most developing nations.
“Data from tens of thousands of speed tests run by consumers in the three Pacific territories, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands reveal actual Internet speeds that are not only five times slower than Hawaii, but also inferior to the least developed countries of Eastern Europe, including Albania, Belarus and Bosnia-Herzegovina.
“In American Samoa, for example, the average measured download speed is 66 Kbps (just 7 percent of the FCC's minimum standard for broadband!). Even in Guam, where advertised download speeds can top out at 25 Mbps, the average measured speed is 91 Kbps.
“These slow speeds strangle economic development on the islands and badly hamper residents' ability to engage in e-commerce, e-learning, telemedicine, and even communication with the outside world-all of which have a greater importance in places as isolated as the Northern Marianas Islands and American Samoa.
“Slow Internet speeds and high prices would be less troubling if there was low demand for Internet access. However, surveys conducted by One Economy have found that residents of the Pacific territories have a strong desire to have broadband internet. For example, nearly 70% of residents of the Northern Marianas Islands use the Internet, but only half of those who use the internet have broadband in his or her home. Most of those without broadband cite cost as the prohibitive factor.
"People talk of information technology and globalization like they are phenomena that are beneficial to all. But that is not the case. There are winners and losers from globalization depending on a community's ability to capitalize on it," says One Global Economy President Moustafa Mourad. "If the American Pacific territories continue to lag behind the rest of the country in terms of internet connectivity at an affordable price, they risk being left behind by a globalizing world."
Rhonda Annesley and Patty Page contributed to this report.
(See Tuesday’s edition this week for other information about the ASTCA building dedication.)