Tonga lies about 2,000 kilometers (km) north of New Zealand and 3,500 km east of Australia. It consists of 171 islands, 48 of which are inhabited, and has a population of about 100,000. About 25% of the population lives in urban areas and 70% in Tongatapu, the site of the capital city, Nuku’alofa. In 2010, 2% of the population had access to the internet, mostly via dial-up connection, and only 0.9% had access to broadband services. Computer users relied heavily on satellite connectivity, which was inadequate to meet growing demand for bandwidth.
While Tonga had one of the highest mobile tele-densities at 60% and lowest local and international call tariff rates in the region, as of 2011, internet penetration remained modest with only 2,500 subscribers. This hindered domestic business opportunities and access to larger international markets. Demand for international bandwidth was projected to grow rapidly, from about 40 megabit per second (Mbps) to 332 Mbps in 2017. Against this backdrop and in response to the Pacific Islands Forum leaders’ call for improved international connectivity of island member countries and the Secretariat of the Pacific Community’s Framework for Action on ICT for Development in the Pacific 2010, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) approved a $9.7 million grant for the Tonga–Fiji Submarine Cable Project in August 2011.
The project’s intended impact was improved economic performance and public service delivery through widely available and affordable ICT services in Tonga. Its expected outcome was access to good broadband internet services provided to the population at a lower price. It had two planned outputs: (i) Tonga linked to the submarine fiber optic cable network via connection through Fiji, a distance of 827 kilometers (km), enabling the country to connect onward to the Southern Cross Cable Network, including Australia, the United States, and beyond; and (ii) efficient operation of the Tonga submarine cable system by the Tonga Cable Limited (TCL), a public enterprise established in 2011 to develop and manage submarine cable options. The project was implemented in partnership with the World Bank.
Savings realized from lower-than-anticipated costs, supplemented by government funding, enabled the project to extend the cable to two other islands in Tonga, providing isolated maritime communities access to ICT and increasing the number of residents with improved internet access from a projected 75,000 to 94,000. By completion, the project had installed 1,233 km of submarine cable, or about 1.5 times the target. Recognizing the important role of the Ministry of Meteorology, Environment, Information, Disaster Management, Climate Change and Communications (MEIDECC) in the ICT sector, technical assistance was provided by the World Bank and the Pacific Region Infrastructure Facility to complement the project’s effort to improve MEIDECC’s operational and financial management capacity.
Project completion led to a 32% growth in the number of registered broadband subscribers between 2011 and 2018, about 75% of which were mobile subscribers, and a 250% decrease in annual retail broadband fees between 2016 and 2018. Wholesale internet bandwidth increased, pushing down wholesale and consequently retail internet prices. At project closing, internet retail price was 40% cheaper than anticipated, triggering the growth in mobile device usage. At completion review mission, about 85% of the population already owned individual phones thus increasing mobile broadband penetration.
Overall, the new submarine cable system has improved internet access and speed and reduced the internet costs in Tonga’s three islands, providing the people immeasurable benefits through greater social connectivity, more income and learning opportunities, and better access to public services and key utilities, etc. The project had the Ministry of Finance and National Planning as executing agency and the TCL as implementing agency.