My first post on this blog tried to deal with this issue and I have learnt a lot over the past 2.5 years. I still don’t have all the details but I think I know enough now to get most of it right.
Getting internet into the country
The backbone of the internet is a network of thick cables that are laid under the sea. 99% of the information sent over the internet use these cables. Most countries have more than a few cables connected to it to optimise traffic depending on where it is going to or coming from. Papua New Guinea has 2 cables, the PPC-1 (PIPE Pacific Cable 1) and the APNG-2 (Australia PNG 2).
PPC-1 (Guam-Madang-Syd) is the biggest cable and has recently been upgraded to be able to deliver 10Gbps to Madangi; realistically only 2-3Gbps of bandwidth gets used because of poor connectivity to Port Moresby and the rest of the country. Port Moresby is connected to PPC-1 by a “high capacity network” (HCN) which is made up of a number of wireless repeater stations; a notoriously unreliable system that can operate at no more than about 2Gbps, more on this below. The rest of the bandwidth is used on the north coast, i.e. Lae.
The APNG-2 (Syd-Moresby) link can barely carry 1Gbps and has outdated technology so its reliability is questionable. Multiple sources have told me this cable is completely dedicated to Facebook traffic.
PNG Internet 101
Wholesale internet providers sell portions of their bandwidth to telecommunication companies, mainly internet service providers (ISPs). Wholesale providers typically own massive networks that include undersea cables. E.g. AAPT (owned by TPG, who own the PPC-1) have one of the largest backhaul in Australia, behind Telstraii.
Telikom PNG, bmobile-Vodafone and PNG DataCo were all bought together in 2017 to form “Kumul Telikom Holdings”iii (KTH) which is a state-owned-enterprise. KTH have exclusive rights to buy and sell bandwidth, via PNG DataCo, on both cables to ISPs as well as direct to their own retail customers via Telikom PNG, bmobile and Datec (also owned by KTH). A 2016 Deloitte paper stated that KTH buys bandwidth from undersea cable owners at AU$30 per Mbps per month and sells it at AU$800 per Mbpsiv; this has likely gone down since. My personal guess would be about AU$400 per Mbps (happy to be told otherwise).
This is a key reason other players like Digicel, Speedcast and Lightspeed have purchased satellite bandwidth such as O3b (Other 3 billion) or VSAT and set up dishes in Moresby, Lae and other locations around the country. O3b Networks is a company that own 16 satellites that orbit 8km above Earth. You need 2 large dishes on the ground to communicate with O3b satellites.
Digicel currently purchase approximately 3Gbps of O3b satellite bandwidth in PNGvi. KTH have unofficially stated that Digicel also buys approx 150Mbps of bandwidth on the undersea cables from themvii. Digicel sell their bandwidth direct to retail and business customers around PNG.
PNG DataCo has recently been given 2 new O3b Earth Stations in Moresby (from the Government of Australia) which gives them 6Gpbs additional capacity (doubling Moresby’s current total bandwidth). Whilst this is awesome news for the reliability and speed of internet in Moresby, O3b bandwidth is not cheap. This will definitely help the situation but don’t expect radical changes just yet. Estimated cost prices for O3b bandwidth in PNG is approx AU$250-$400 per Mbps per month.
Other ISPs, including Digicelviii, in PNG use other satellite systems (VSAT) which utilise satellites higher up at 36km. They are much more reliable than O3b however don’t have the bandwidth that O3b can provide. Search meo geo satellite internet for a better explanation on how they differ.
Getting internet around the country
The HCN operates in a loop system between Madang and Port Moresby. This allows one side of the loop to carry upload traffic and the other side, download traffic. The loop could probably run at about 3Gpbs in one direction but due to packet losses from weather and faulty equipment, it usually gets about 1Gbps. When one side of the loop breaks, the other side gets bottlenecked trying to deal with two way data flow and the link completely fails. The HCN requires maintenance on many repeater stations that run on diesel gen sets. All this, combined with constant land owner issues, makes for a bad time. The Kumul Domestic undersea cable (not to be confused with the Coral Sea Cable System) may fix this as it will provide a fibre connection between Madang and Port Moresby allowing the full 10Gbps currently available from PPC-1 to flow to Moresby; due March 2019.
All of the below “last-mile” providers have their own networks (backhaul) that connect microwave dishes (e.g. on top of the Yacht Club) and mobile towers (3G/4G) to a cable landing site (CLS) or base station. In the case of O3b, the data backhaul continues through space until it reaches a suitable core network (usually in Sydney).
Side note: PNG has an internet exchange point. An IXP helps optimise data flow; recently Google, Akamai and Facebook have installed caches at the IXP. I.e. YouTube can store the most popular videos on the cache then IXP would provide a local copy of the video when someone in PNG decides to watch one of them. This is key to making internet faster and cheaper in PNG.
Telikom PNG owns a lot of backhaul with approx 400 towers and a tonne of fibre around Moresby. They also own the HCN and other various fibre connections between Madang, Lae, Mt Hagen and other cities in the Highlands. Since they merged under KTH, the plan was to have Telikom leave the mobile business and focus on landlines and fixed broadband internet. Negotiations continue.
bmobile was brought by the PNG Government a couple of years ago and is now the mobile provider for KTH. They also have about 400 towers around PNG and will soon be taking Telikom’s mobile customers.
Purchased by Telikom a few years ago, Datec primarily use wireless microwave (Ubiquiti) to supply homes and businesses with internet.
Private company with 1200 mobile towers around PNG in 2018ix. Cover 90% of the population with 2G (non-smartphones), 70% with 3G and major cities have 4G; have over 90% market share. They own Hitron which is their pay TV and residential internet provider. As mentioned, buy most of their bandwidth from O3b and sell to retail and business customers across PNG.
ISP arm of Click Pacific who also provide Click TV; Hitron’s biggest competitor in the pay TV market. Lightspeed have a network of wireless repeater dishes around POM which they use to distribute internet and IPTV (digital TV). They buy their internet as a mix of satellite (O3b) and undersea cable (KTH) and resell it.
They have two O3b dishes in PNGx; one in Moresby and Lae. They specialise in remote connections e.g. mine sites, however have targeted businesses in Port Moresby since 2016. They sell this bandwidth directly to customers (and bmobile) using wireless technology like microwave dishes to connect remote sites to their earth stations.
There are a number of other ISPs (Excite, Global, Daltron, Digitec, APCS) that either resell cable bandwidth they buy from KTH or use satellites; it’s not clear exactly what technology mix they use. DataCo, Digicel, Speedcast and Lightspeed are the only known direct O3b purchasers (possibly more) and it doesn’t appear they wholesale this bandwidth and prefer to sell it direct to retail customers.
Majority of residential and business internet still use wireless technology in the form of dishes are mounted to the roof of a building and beam to base stations scattered around town; due to a lack of copper or fibre which would be preferred.
Technically the PPC-1 cable could be upgraded with a “small configuration” to 10Tbps (the same as one of the Coral Sea Cables). The Madang-Moresby links are not reliable so this is not feasible. You could spur off the PPC-1 and create another link between Sydney and POM. Or you could build a fibre link between Madang and Moresby.
Madang-Moresby HCN Link
Land owner issues, vandalism and poor maintenance means that there are constant issues keeping the link with Madang running well. As soon as this link is no longer relied upon for Port Moresby’s internet it will a) deteriorate to nothing or b) be a great way for inland schools and hospitals to get internet as there will be very little congestion on it.
O3b satellites are expensive but they allow Digicel to set their own prices and have a more stable link as they don’t need to worry about the above issues. They would obviously prefer to buy cheap, reliable fibre bandwidth but that is not available, yet. Their coverage of 90% of the population and over 90% market share means they don’t need to negotiate if they don’t want to.
A lack of inland infrastructure means that getting undersea bandwidth from the coast is problematic. About 70% of PNG’s population live 1km from the Highlands Highway. Mobile towers solve a lot of the challenges moving data over difficult terrain with unpredictable owners. Mobile towers still need to be installed on land that is owned by someone, have 24/7 power (diesel get sets) and regular maintenance.
IT issues that normally would take a few hours in Australia would take days in PNG. This is because skilled technicians usually need to be flown in from another country with the required parts.