During the last couple of days I have been able to explore the Internet connectivity and telecoms ecosystem in Palau. I have also been able to set up first meetings with major stakeholders relevant to the work of the Island Ark Project. Walking around the rather small island of Koror, the economic powerhouse of Palau, while being grilled by the sun and 32°C, is taxing even if most places can be reached within twenty minutes. Though the temperature turned out to be the least of our problems: the accessibility of the Internet here in Palau created a major challenge for the project. Read this blog post to learn about the state of Internet access in Palau.
Internet Access. We already expected the lack of high bandwidth Internet access to be a main challenge for the usage of our online platform by Palauans. Now, after a short time on islands, it has become clear that a simple Internet-based option will likely not work in Palau. Internet access comes through various channels. Some people visit Internet Cafés or restaurants/cafés that offer free WiFi. Others rely on WiFi provided by public institutions – including the community college – or access the Internet at home through subscriptions with the Palau National Communications Commission (PNCC). The same company also offers hotspot services to hotels and local businesses to allow their guests to log onto the Internet using prepaid Internet cards sold at most stores. An hour costs $2.50; the bandwidth varies and is generally rather low. My host said that the speed is best between 1am at night and noon, due to lower overall usage by households and offices.
As you can see, the problem isn’t the last mile connection to the users, particularly in Koror which accounts for about two thirds of the Palau’s population. Instead, the lack of a fiber optic cable to Palau and the need to rely on expensive and slow satellite-based Internet represents the bottleneck. There is an undersea cable project underway but it may take four or five years to complete... or even longer. As Internet access is relatively slow and costly, our project – which is an online platform to upload and view or download multimedia files on traditional intangible culture – is seriously challenged. It is unlikely that many people in Palau are willing to spend their precious Internet time see an upload bar move slowly from left to right, while they could instead catch up on news or messaging their friends.
We will have to find a way to increase the accessibility if we want to stand a chance to provide a convincing culture-preservation service through an online platform. We are currently – from the US, Europe and here in Palau – looking into various opportunities to host content locally. Where there is a will, there’s a way!