Being here is definitely giving me a new look at some of the expectations around access to technology we have in the developed world. My job before was to keep people connected so they could work, I did have a decent grasp on how important technology is to life. Here I’m having certain things I took for granted highlighted. Technology is coming here very quickly but there are a number of things still missing.
As it seems to be across the developing world, cell phones are booming. Until the market opened in 2008 there was just one cell phone company in the country (TVL – Telecom Vanuatu Ltd). Now, it has been joined by a second (Digicel). From what I’ve heard, the service pre-’08 was limited and expensive. Competition has spurred a huge boom in the number of towers in country and dropped the prices. When we arrived on Pentecost we found that, in our area, TVL is available on most hills while Digicel appears in tiny pockets the size of your head. Our village has a bench down the hill from our house that was about the only place to get it (though unreliably) without a fifteen minute walk uphill. They installed a new tower a few miles south and yesterday was discovered we can sometimes get texts on our front porch or make calls from the store just down from our door. Barring that, the previous area seems even stronger in signal. Peace Corps has a deal worked out with Digicel so that anyone on our “Team Talk” plan can call each other for free. Having the easier access is huge in keeping us sane and talking with our fellow volunteers. We’re not positive that this is going to stick but we’re hopeful.
Computers too seem to be swiftly pushing further out into the islands. People are pretty generally excited and eager to learn how to use them. Of course, the knowledge of quite what they’re to be used for is not there yet. That’s part of what I’m here to work on. At the moment, they’re all too often viewed as more playthings for the boys. There is a sense that there are better uses and a few people even have some concept of what these might be.
Unfortunately, the delivery system isn’t keeping up with desire or the speed at which machines break in a hot, humid environment. In the last month I’ve had three of eleven computers develop problems. Though one mysteriously fixed itself, two are still out of commission. As these went down while Gaea was in Vila, I spent some time attempting to contact parts suppliers in town so we could purchase and have her pick them up. This met with great frustration and general failure. I needed a couple new motherboards, to get them I had to talk to the technicians to get specifics on what they have. In more than ten phone calls to three stores, I actually talked to a tech four times. When I did manage to talk to a tech, my service would give out or there would be a problem transferring the call and it would drop.
No, I still don’t have the parts. If I have time while I’m in town I’ll visit some places. If that goes well, my Headmaster will be coming in for other business and could pay for/pick them up. If not, we get to rely on either the slow and only minorly inconsistent shipping system or the wildly inconsistent postal system.
Finally there is the internet. This is currently an exciting front for me. I have known since I came out to site that there was supposed to be some kind of project that would bring internet to Melsisi but, I had no details. Then the telecommunications regulator came to town to explain this project that is definitely coming. They have recently put together a program to push cheap, reliable, and decently quick internet out into the islands. The bonus for me is that they’ve chosen Melsisi as one of four pilot sites. All the pilot sites have a secondary school and a health center for which the government will fund the connection. Additionally, there will be a community telecenter with at least three computers, printer, and copier.
I had planned to put together some community education classes anyway, but now there is a lot more interest and the knowledge will be a lot more useful in the long-term. The community still has to choose a location and the government has to find contractors. This means won’t be in until the end of the year, we hope. That it is coming eventually is still exciting. I’m focusing on the fact that this gives me time to teach people how to double-click and maybe even right-click.