The first thing you notice on arrival is that this South Pacific island is more French than France itself.
The other surprise was that the earth (red) and the vegetation is very Australian, unlike that of other South Pacific islands, demonstrating the close Gondwanaland relationship between these two countries.
Another major feature of this island is the hospitality and warm smiles that are the trademark of the South Pacific.
And, last but not least, like Australia, New Caledonia also has a convict history – an era that began around the time that Australia’s was coming to an end.
The French people, supported by the French government, are determined to maintain the French character of Nouvelle Calédonie. Over US$1billion is poured into the territory every year by the mother country – New Caledonia and French Polynesia have by far the highest trade deficit in the Pacific, making them all the more dependent on France.
The French government is trying to recoup some of these subsidies through high import and export duties, which makes life in New Caledonia very expensive, as most consumer goods are imported from France.
The country is the world’s third largest producer of nickel, and during our travels we drove through some of these working mines. They are so large that they simply absorb the existing road system.
The mines do, however, leave deep scars in the environment and we saw the damage this does to the coastal reef system. Slowly but surely, however, more ecological requirements are being placed on the mining industry, especially now that this market is slowly being opened up for overseas (Canadian) investments.
Officially a new independency referendum is due between 2012 and 2020, but with 2,500 Frenchmen being added to the population on an annual basis this referendum could easily end up in the same place as all the previous arrangements – on the scrap heap. Currently 44% of the population is Kanak and 34% European, with a mixture of other South Pacific people, North African and Asians making up the rest.
Outside the capital, Nouméa, where over 70% of the 230,000 New Caledonians live, the situation is completely reversed. This is where Kanaky (what the indigenous people, the Kanaks, call their land) begins. There are only a few larger towns – maximum 5,000 people, 95% of which are indigenous. It is very strange to see French military police patrolling the street, as we saw in La Foa. This is a clear indication that France has no interest whatsoever in any independence movement. In the past they have not shied away from using brute force to impose their rule over the Kanaks.
Since 1998, in order to make independence less of an issue, the French government, under the so-called Nouméa Accord, has been pouring large sums of money into the development of the country, and we saw evidence of this during our travels, with big social and cultural centres in Kanak territory.
Nevertheless, the national 20% rate of unemployment is concentrated almost entirely around the indigenous people, and they earn only a third of the income earned by the French citizens of the country.
On the other hand, medical care and education are among the best in the Pacific. Infrastructure is another great gift from the French, as we experienced during our trip. There are not many South Pacific Islands where you can drive around the countryside with ease, which of course provides a great opportunity to make contact with the land and its culture.
In Nouméa I met with Olivier Verdier and Johnny Lasiman from OPT and they provided me with an update on the latest telecoms developments in their country.
While telecommunications was not a part of the Nouméa Accord, government policies have resulted in excellent communications services. OPT is able to cross-subsidise its services between post and telecoms, as well as between metro (=Nouméa) and the villages. Over the last few years both mobile and broadband communications have enjoyed a continuing boom.
The market is dominated by the state monopoly OPT; the market is simply too small to warrant infrastructure-based competition. There is limited competition in the Internet arena, with some five players. OPT also operates in this market through Offratel, a 50% joint venture with France Câble & Radio. Other players are MLS, Kanel, Edge and RENATER (university). Some consolidation is expected in the not too distant future.
Internet and broadband
Internet penetration is low, with only 20,000 subscribers, half of them on broadband. Prices are also relatively high, first in relation to equipment such as PCs (because of the high import duties), but also the subscription rates are relatively high, starting at US$30 per month for dial-up and $70 a month for entry level 128Kb/s broadband. The 128Kb/s service was introduced after the original higher speed/higher cost services generated a limited uptake only.
But progress remains a key issue as well, and in 2006 ADSL2+ will be introduced in the country, commencing, of course, in the capital Nouméa.
Nevertheless the government is determined to promote broadband and currently 50% of the local communities are connected to the broadband network. As a consequence, extensive fibre upgrades have already taken place in Nouméa and OPT is now also planning to link the west coast optical fibre cable to the east coast, from Koné to Poindimié. Currently Hienghène, a stronghold of the independence movement, is the only town on the east coast that has broadband access, linked with the west coast by microwave.
Talking about cables, Olivier also confirmed that an RFP was issued in December for a fibre optic submarine cable from Nouméa and Sydney, it is expected that a start will be made later on this year.
In the harbour of Nouméa we saw the big submarine cable maintenance ship from Alcatel, Ile de Rene. According to Olivier the ship is always in the harbour, indicating the high level of quality of the submarine cables in the Pacific; the ship doesn’t need to get out for cable maintenance work (
Mobile communication is still a rapidly growing service; there are now 130,000 subscribers, of which 80% are on prepaid. And, indeed, in all the villages we visited on our travels I noticed that there was mobile coverage. This is not the case in the areas between these towns, which is further complicated by the ruggedness of the country and, of course, the low population distribution outside the capital.
OPT has pledged that it will not become involved in the content market and seven companies are active in this field, of which six are local companies offering ringtones and other content services via the incumbent’s mobile network.
Revenues are shared on a 60/40 basis in favour of the content providers. VoIP as a voice service remains a state monopoly and it will be interesting to see how technological developments in broadband are going to test the boundaries between basic services and content services.
Since 2003, to compensate for the lack of competition, 50% of the Board of OPT is made up of representatives from the 43 local communities. I questioned whether people power could influence, for example, the roll-out of broadband and Olivier told me about one of the board members, the mayor of La Foa, who is playing an active role for his community. I was not surprised by this, having visited La Foa and having experienced the pride and energy that is apparent in this community.
While we were in New Caledonia the government announced a relaxation of government legislative requirements in relation to OTP’s procurement requirements, this will open up opportunities for other suppliers to compete for the business of the carrier, and at the same time OPT will be able to negotiate more competitive contracts.
Report of the week – New Caledonia – Telecoms Market Overview & Statistics
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