A connection to the world, delivered by underwater cable from Singapore, promises to transform Christmas Island

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February 08, 2019 07:35:47

While their counterparts on mainland Australia stream Netflix and share Snapchat streaks with ease, young Christmas Islanders sometimes struggle to load a YouTube video.

The island, located in the Indian Ocean 2,600 kilometres north-west of Perth, has long relied on patchy internet coverage via satellite.

A thunderstorm or even dense cloud cover can bring a household connection to a shuddering halt.

“Fast internet would be good just to keep in touch with the world. We’re so isolated and we’re so far behind,” said Brina Lee, 27, a power station worker.

But after years of frustrations, a new underwater cable linking Singapore to Perth promises for the first time to deliver high-speed and reliable internet to the island.

A short offshoot from the cable to Christmas Island will connect it to a global undersea cabling network that makes up the sprawling, unseen infrastructure of the internet.

The company that built the new cable, which will be activated within weeks, said it would provide stability for the island’s 1,800 residents.

“It’ll mean much cheaper and virtually unlimited capacity for what they’ll need,” said Vocus Communications project director Peter Harrison.

“On top of that it’ll take away the delay they have [with the current satellite connection].”

‘It’ll make a very big difference’

On one of Australia’s most remote territories, an internet connection is a vital link to the outside world, particularly for the island’s younger inhabitants.

There is no 3G mobile data available on Christmas Island, and mail can sometimes take upwards of a week to arrive from the mainland.

When Chun Tan’s family uses its monthly data limit on their satellite account, the 18-year-old is left in a difficult position.

Until now, islanders have had the option of NBN or Speedcast satellite services, with the latter company promising to soon offer fixed wireless internet services through the new cable.

“I go to my grandpa’s house, and they also have run out of data, so I’m basically isolated from the internet for the next two weeks,” Mr Tan said.

“I can’t even talk to my parents and my sisters [who are] overseas right now and I have no contact with them.”

In a statement, NBN Co’s Jane McNamara said its satellite service is “the most appropriate technology” to deliver NBN broadband access to remote areas where homes are spread out.

“NBN Co will continue to look at ways to optimise the services available on the Sky Muster satellite to ensure we meet the needs for rural Australians,” she said.

Fourteen-year-old Nazif Zainalabiden, an aspiring computer engineer, is already proficient in Python — a programming language — and plans to learn C++ and JavaScript.

Pursuing a career in software engineering, which he hopes to one day study at university, would be harder without a reliable connection.

“Once we get fibre-optic, it’ll be actually better since we wouldn’t lose the connection,” he said.

“It’ll make a very big difference to the island.”

A slow and temperamental satellite connection also gets in the way of streaming sports from overseas, said 19-year-old Alicia Hong.

Ms Hong, an avid follower of AFL (she’s a West Coast fan) and the English Premier League, is in the habit of setting an early alarm to watch northern hemisphere fixtures.

“I wake up at 3am and try to watch it and I can’t. I can’t find a livestream website, and I get really annoyed,” she said.

Paying online? Think again

For the island’s businesses, which range from restaurants to diving companies, a connection dropout can be more than an annoyance — it can mean a failed payment.

“If it’s a perfect sunny day and clear blue sky, we have very good internet,” said Jee Foo, who runs a travel agency on the island.

“But if the wind starts blowing and the weather changes, whatever we’re doing, the internet always drops out.”

Even shopping online can be tricky if Wi-Fi suddenly lapses. Ms Hong has accidentally paid twice for items she was trying to buy when her connection crashed.

“It gets really annoying,” she said. “I have to go through the process of asking for refunds back.”

Undersea cables can from time to time be damaged by fishing activity or ships’ anchors, but otherwise it is expected Christmas Island’s will last at least 25 years.

Topics:

internet-culture,

internet-technology,

telecommunications,

christmas-island,

perth-6000,

singapore



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