Interview: Paul Komboi

How would you evaluate the completion of the Coral Sea Cable Project and the Kumul Submarine Cable Network, and what are the benefits of these?

PAUL KOMBOI: The impact thus far has been positive, enabling capacity to expand by around 4 GB. This has brought much-needed stability and reliability to the network. Prices have also dropped by 40%. We want to ensure that our network growth is inclusive of all Papua New Guineans, and not just those in economic centres such as Port Moresby – which is home to only 20% of the population – and Lae. To ensure long-term inclusive growth, we are working with the National ICT Authority to provide greater industry transparency for the benefit of both operators and consumers. The end goal is to provide the best possible services at affordable prices. The Kumul network is slated to go live in July 2020, once testing is completed, and should help Papua New Guinea achieve this target.

What were some of the challenges for process integration and wider regional coordination while completing the cable projects?

KOMBOI: It takes time to broker a deal of this complexity. The priorities and national interests of the three countries involved – Australia, Solomon Islands and PNG – were at the heart of the agreement, and just below the surface are measures to mitigate critical national security and privacy concerns. This required a good deal of coordination and turned out to be a beneficial learning experience for all parties, culminating in the signing of 17 agreements.

Which steps can be taken to bridge the communications gap created by the digital divide in Pacific island states, especially during a national emergency?

KOMBOI: The cable we laid to connect PNG with Australia and Solomon Islands is the foundation for wider connectivity and enhanced economic growth across the Pacific island region. The challenge now, in the next phase of this project, is to extend connectivity to all districts and remote areas. Once we are able to increase penetration rates, these areas will witness economic multiplier effects over time.

It is not sufficient to just install new, modernised critical infrastructure; we must follow through with operational excellence, proper governance and effective regulatory oversight to ensure that the benefits can be passed on to retailers and, ultimately, consumers. The ICT sector cannot achieve this alone. We need a major national effort to ensure wider access to reliable power and other utilities.

To what extent will the telecommunications sector reassess or upgrade existing infrastructure in light of global economic uncertainty?

KOMBOI: This is an issue that applies beyond the ICT sector and into other areas of critical infrastructure that are needed across the country. This includes transport and logistics, as well as wider utility generation. We cannot develop just one aspect of infrastructure, because one aspect can essentially be meaningless on its own. In order to foster growth, we need to integrate the planning of transportation, power generation and dissemination, and digital penetration. There are greenfield challenges, including the improvement of power transmission networks, and there are brownfield challenges – including the upgrade or replacement of existing ICT infrastructure, such as electricity pylons that support fibre transmission. In all of this, a lack of access to funding is the common denominator.

Most provinces have recognised that we are moving into the digital age. This process has been accelerated by Covid-19, which has shifted mindsets more rapidly. More provinces are now willing to meet us half way to transform their ICT capabilities. We are involved in the Connect PNG infrastructure initiative and are working with the departments of Treasury, National Planning and Monitoring, and Works, in addition to PNG Power.