Broadband in paradise faces a special set of problems, island experts say

Peter Dresslar, a broadband and digital equity consultant for both the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) and American Samoa, is of two minds. While he knows that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is working as hard as they can to deliver accurate broadband maps to the country, some of the oversights in the mapping of the Pacific Territories have been darkly comic. Case in point: When ISPs reported their broadband records for American Samoa, they simply reported every single address on the territory’s map as receiving service, whether each did or not.

In reality, American Samoa has severe access challenges, but the broadband mapping in the Pacific Territories is only the first part of a larger story. When it comes to mapping, what’s at stake is money, more specifically the formula funding which will be added to baseline support that each state and territory will receive from the $42.5 billion Broadband Equity, Access and Deployment (BEAD) Program. States are set to receive at least $100 million apiece from BEAD while territories like American Samoa and the Mariana Islands will get a minimum of $25 million each. Additional funding on top of that will be divvied up by the government based on the number of unserved addresses in each state or territory.

Dresslar is currently in the process of setting up a nonprofit organization to formalize his consultancy with all of the Pacific Territories. While there are differentiators between them, there are also key similarities in this funding debacle, too.

“If challenges aren’t successful, Samoa will get $0. The other two [Pacific] territories will be similarly shut out from formula funding. These are the most expensive places [in the country] to buy internet, they’re notoriously bad in terms of reliability and connection speed,” Dresslar said.

In this part of the world, the economics are always glaring. The Pacific Territories—Guam, American Samoa and the Northern Mariana Islands—are the most remote pockets of the United States. They must ship in all of their products, from a pair of jeans to a sack of potatoes. That shipping causes the prices for goods and services to be higher than most mainland Americans are accustomed to.

On February 8th, President Biden reiterated at the State of the Union address that all federally sponsored infrastructure projects across the United States, including BEAD, will have to use American-made goods. For communities in the Pacific, this is a commendable goal but deeply challenging in practice.

Tyrone Taitano, the infrastructure coordinator in Guam's Office of Infrastructure Policy and Development, knows that the sentiment to “Buy American” is important, but noted it eats into costs to the point where it severely limits what can be accomplished at the end of the day. “It’s one thing to ship steel from Ohio to California, but to ship it to the Pacific? [We could] get it from Japan, which is three hours away by plane,” he said.

In that vein, a curious question has sprouted from Biden’s Buy American decree in CNMI. “All of the ISPs in the CNMI and two-thirds of the operators in Guam are foreign-owned. They operate in the U.S., but can we buy internet service from foreign companies under Buy American? We don’t have an alternative for American-owned ISPs,” explained Dresslar.

Looking for labor

The next challenge for broadband deployments in the Pacific once BEAD money is allocated will be labor forces. To Dresslar, there’s no question labor forces will have to be shipped into the islands to help with construction. Currently, CNMI is in conversation with officials in Alaska and Hawaii to see how they can strategize across their labor pools to maximize resources.

For specialty engineering, CNMI will likely have to go to the mainland. “I worry [at that point] that the high-level contracting will be sold out or difficult to find because we’ll be shopping last,” said Dresslar.

Guam is in a similar position with labor, but different contextual factors are at play. Most labor there is pulled from the Philippines and other countries in Asia. The territory has a tourism-based economy and hotels are hustling to upgrade their own infrastructure to meet an expected uptick in international travel. Beyond that, telecoms could end up competing for labor with the military base, which may require their own construction as tensions with China rise. “For most Americans, the prospect of a conflict with China is distant and theoretical. It’s not that distant here,” said Taitano.

In 1941, Guam was occupied by the Japanese army. That occupation lasted until 1944, but Taitano is incredibly cognizant of how quickly war can arrive in the Pacific. The way he sees it, the federal government should be looking at infrastructure in Guam not just as a question of meeting the needs of citizens who live there. It’s meeting the needs of Guam as a whole in the case of any military conflict. But again, one pool of construction workers is effectively being split to meet the needs of infrastructure projects, the private sector and the military base. There are only so many resources before the bids on time and resources start to rise.

Fighting haunts fiber dreams

CNMI will also have to confront remnants of WWII in order to make independent fiber dreams a reality. Saipan was heavily shelled in the Pacific Theater and many pockets of the islands are unsafe to do typical surveying work because of unexploded ordnance. “We cannot do a number of surveys [for fiber] without working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers,” Dresslar explained. “That’s a real blocker. It’s an expensive cost that I would argue could be something the federal government takes care of.”

Americans born on the mainland don’t often think about the generations of people who have lived for hundreds of thousands of years in the Pacific. Their remoteness from mainland America impacts everything from economies of scale to the price of goods and many times leaves them simply getting left behind.

“The Territories did not colonize North America. The distance is a function of America’s continued desire to have geopolitical protection. People [here] have served in the military, they’re proud, but [the] distance isn’t something the territories chose. [Are these costs] something that should come out of the pockets of individuals in Saipan, Samoa and Guam?” Dresslar asked.

Taitano agreed that the distance between the territories and the mainland binds together all of the islands’ interests, but the threat of war should be at the forefront of any infrastructure conversation in Guam. “Any investment on Guam is an investment into resilience if the [United States] finds themselves in a conflict with China. If the Air Force Generals speculate we’ll be at war in two years, we take that very seriously.”