A new submarine cable for the Cook Islands: But to where?

By Jonathan Brewer 
(Originally published on APNIC Blog on 23 Jan 2019)

Manatua is a new submarine cable that will link Samoa with Tahiti, picking up Niue, Aitutaki, Rarotonga, and Bora Bora along the way. Its Rarotonga and Aitutaki landings will be the first fibre optic connectivity for the Cook Islands, who today access the Internet through an O3b medium-earth-orbit satellite link to Honolulu.
Manatua will bring traffic from the Cook Islands to the landings of several existing submarine cables, with onwards connectivity to AustraliaNew Zealand and the United States.
The diagram below is a simplified view of that connectivity set up like a subway map.

Figure 1 — Manatua and its interconnections in the Pacific.

Once the Cook Islands are connected to their neighbours via Manatua, what will be the best way for them to connect to the global Internet? We’ll explore that topic today.

About the Cook Islands

The Cook Islands is one of the most remote places on earth. Around 18,000 people live in the Cook Islands, with 75% of the population concentrated on the island of Rarotonga. Another 60,000 Cook Islanders live in New Zealandand 16,000 in Australia.

Tourism accounts for 60% of the GDP of the Cook Islands, well ahead of any other industry or exports. More than 160,000 tourists visited in 2017 with nearly three quarters coming from Australia or New Zealand. Aside from tourism, the Cook Islands’ economy is supported by primary industries like fishing, with most exports going to Japan and Thailand, and to a lesser degree, offshore banking and asset protection used mainly by Americans.

Project background

The Manatua cable will be a point-to-point connection between Apia and Tahiti, with branching units to Niue, Aitutaki, Rarotonga and Bora Bora. It will solve problems for all connected parties. French Polynesia has wanted to improve the resilience of their single cable since it was commissioned in 2010. Samoa has a goal of becoming the Information Technology hub for the South Pacific by 2020. And the Cook Islands has been thinking of moving away from satellite since 2013; their Manatua project having been underway since 2016.

In October 2018, all of the financial issues between the parties were agreedupon, and TE Subcom was contracted to build the cable on 20 November. Cook Island obligations are being funded with a USD 15 million grant from the New Zealand government, and a USD 15 million loan from Asia Development Bank (ADB). The Cook Islands’ government will have a five-year grace period, a 20-year repayment term on the loan, and a floating interest rate based on LIBOR.

What good is a submarine cable?

Elected officials and government representatives in the Pacific often talk about submarine fibre being a faster connection to the global Internet, but in practice they mean a faster connection to the USA. Samoa Submarine Cable Company’s reference offering, for example, is a point-to-point service that connects Samoan users to the Internet in San Jose, California.

Connecting to the USA however isn’t always what users of the Internet want. A representative of the local media said the local carrier finds most of its traffic destined for a few sites:

While all these services are available in California, every single one is also available in Sydney, and some in Suva and Auckland. And users of these services from Australia and New Zealand are likely to have their personal data stored on servers in their home markets, not in the USA.

After connections to popular cloud services, what do people use the Internet for? Voice and video calling. This means Skype, Facetime, Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp and others. If most of those calls are to Australia, New Zealand, or export markets like Japan or Thailand, is sending all Internet traffic to the USA a good idea at all?

All of these services — social media and calling alike — depend on fast connections between users and servers to work well. In most cases, a return-trip delay (or latency) of more than 240 ms will be perceived as slow.

The best ways to connect

Getting the best performance for Internet users should be a goal of operators using the new cable. Here we’ll look at a few different ways the Cook Islands could connect to the Internet and how it would impact performance on their users.

Figure 2 — Samoa Submarine Cable: Capacity lease.
Figure 3 — Samoa Submarine Cable: IRU + Fintel.
Figure 4 — Office des Postes et Télécommunication (OPT): Honotua.
Figure 5 — SAS + Hawaiki.

In summary

The table below sums up options, banding latencies as sub-100 ms (green), 100-200 ms (yellow), and over 200 ms (blue).

In an ideal world, the Manatua cable would connect the Pacific Islands to each other, and Internet capacity would be available for purchase inexpensively in hubs like Samoa and Fiji. Traffic from the Cook Islands would take any available path, and the lowest latency connection to all endpoints would always be used. The Cook Islands would send its California-bound traffic via Tahiti, its Fiji-bound traffic via Samoa, and its Australia and New Zealand traffic on Hawaiki.

That said, Australia and New Zealand traffic should be considered above all else, because from a cultural and economic perspective, the Cook Islands looks west, not east to the USA.

Commercial realities mean it’s unlikely the Cook Islands will be able to get economic connectivity from its neighbours, and a single-path solution will be taken to meet the economy’s needs, perhaps backed up using existing satellite arrangements. In that case, the obvious winner from an end-user perspective will be a short hop from Apia to Pago Pago, and service on the Hawaiki Cable.

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