Lots of talk in Tokelau

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“The phones have been ringing hot the last few months in Tokelau, thanks to a state-of-the-art telephone system.

For the first time, the 1500 residents of the three small atolls, Fakaofo, Nukunonu and Atafu, have been able to hold private telephone conversations in their own homes. Even more important, the Telecom corporation TeleTok—the country’s first government corporation—is being managed by Tokelauans themselves.

The project is part of Tokelau’s preparation for eventual self-government after 71 years under New Zealand administration.

Tokelau is one of the last countries to get a telephone service; only Tristan Da Cunha and Pitcairn have less-developed systems.

Local calls began in March, and overseas calls in April when the new communications system was commis­sioned. The design and project manage­ment of the system was carried out by Christchurch engineer Robin McNeil, who, with his wife and daughter, spent much of the last two years living in Tokelau.

The new system replaces shortwave radio stations on each island through which all calls, including those between atolls, had to be booked via Apia, the capital of Samoa, some 480 kilome­tres away. This roundabout means of communication often led to delays or garbled messages, and there was no privacy at the shortwave stations—now relegated to a back-up system.

Poor-quality faxes and occasional phone-patches through the unreliable Peacesat satellite system have been possible since 1994, but this link is now only used for the sometimes lengthy government conference calls between atolls.

Each island has three or four public telephones for people who cannot afford their own, and Tokelauans with computers now have access to faxes, email and the Internet.

In August 1996, when the country was given power to enact legislation, setting up TeleTok was the first exercise of that power, a trial run for the greater responsibilities required for self-government.

Tino Vitale, acting general manager of TeleTok, says: “It’s exciting, but it’s scary too. There is much to learn about the business, and we want to minimise the risks for government.”

The people’s response has been “phenomenal,” says Vitale. They are taking to the telephone like canoes to water, especially with calls between New Zealand and Tokelau. The majority of Tokelauan expatriates, about 5000 people, live in New Zealand. In many cases they are urging their island relations to make collect calls. They want to hear from their families once a week, especially as many of the older people live in Tokelau.

Since the new system was commissioned, the number of calls between Tokelau and New Zealand has already reached a volume equivalent to that between other Pacific countries and New Zealand. It is expected to tail off slightly once the novelty wears off.

Having a readily usable inter-atoll communication system is bringing a new closeness within the country, which is beneficial for political development. Young Tokelauans who came to New Zealand for education in the 1960s and 1970s are now supporting their elders and political leaders in looking at what is necessary for self-government.

The most populous island, Fakaofo, has already reached the 10-year predic­tion for take-up of the service, using much of the allocation planned for Nukunonu and Atafu. This is understandable, because the government head office is based at Fakaofo, as is the current seat of government. (The position of head of government rotates, with each faipule (local governor) becoming the Ulu o Tokelau for a year.

Local calls, now made in the cool of the house, are very popular, even though each island settlement is small. No more having to walk in the heat to give a message, or, on Fakaofo, the only island to have two settlements, to take a 15-20-minute boat trip to or from Fenuafala to talk to someone.

As expected, Tokelau teenagers have proved to be like their peers elsewhere: on the phone all the time.

Teletok customers who have a reasonable income are billed monthly, but with the average Tokelauan income being just $2000-3000 per year, most people use phone cards or make calls through an operator, and are pro­tected from debt by toll bars.

Tokelau is in a unique political situation, weaning itself from New Zealand control at its own pace rather than receiving the traditional colonial gift of independence with few underpinnings or planning. This “try it and see” approach allows systems to be put in place and tested.

The telephone system, which gives worldwide communications coverage via satellite, was installed in late 1996 by an Australian company, Telstra.

Robin McNeil’s task included overseeing the unloading of three million dollars’ worth of equipment for the project. It was not easy, because the islands are all too small for airstrips: the total land area is just 12 square kilometres. There are no wharves either, because of the reefs and shallow lagoons. Delicate electronic equipment had to be unloaded from a ship offshore, using lighters and “Tokelau cranes and bulldozers” as the men call themselves.

Buildings for the telecom­munications equipment had to be firmly based on a pad of concrete 1800 mm high to withstand very high tide levels caused by cyclones. All three sites are less than 2.5 metres above the mean sea level. A battery power supply and telephone exchange were also installed. The three islands combined required only 16 kilometres of cable.

Based on forecasts and present uptake, TeleTok expects to be financially self-sustaining. Revenue can also be gained from sales of the telephone directory and of phone cards to collectors.

Other corporations to follow will be TransTok, to provide a better transport system from and between Fakaofo, Nukunonu and Atafu than the one which exists at present, and PowerTok, which will supply tricky using photovoltaic cells or diesel.

Both services are essential elements in the infrastruc­ture of a self-reliant nation, and, like TeleTok, will be government corporations.

No date has yet been set for Tokelau’s “act of self­determination”—the final milestone on the road to independence.

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