Papua New Guinea is embracing the digital revolution. It has been 14 years since the internet arrived in PNG, and suddenly there is a rapidly growing group of young, mobile-carrying, text-happy, internet-connected residents who are taking to social media in droves.
It makes sense. PNG's population of 6.4 million people are scattered across a large land mass, and travel between regions is hindered by poor transport links and road infrastructure. The internet is the perfect solution to overcoming these physical barriers. Yet five years ago, the internet situation in PNG was substandard, with limited, low-speed download capacity and low access to computers (especially in rural areas). All of this is changing.
As Rowan Callick recently reported, 'the arrival of 3G (in PNG) has enabled people to go online throughout the country, accelerating the attractions of Facebook, which has already attracted 35,000 users'. It has been three months since Rowan's article and an additional 13,000 Papua New Guineans have since jumped on the social networking site; 65% of them are 18-34 years old.
PNG bloggers and activist groups are also popping up everywhere in the digital domain. NGO groups, particularly women's groups, are increasingly using the web and social media as a platform for open expression and to connect with like-minded individuals. Prime Minister Michael Somare's retirement last month was broken by journalists in PNG via Twitter, hours before the first article appeared online.
Despite this growth, internet penetration is at only 2% of the population, totaling approximately 125,000 internet users, low when compared with countries such as Fiji.
So why are Papua New Guineans flocking to social media now? A large portion of the credit has to go to Irish mobile phone company, Digicel, which now operates in a number of Pacific countries, and which has transformed the telecommunications landscape in PNG. Coverage now extends to the majority of the country and the company offers relatively cheap handsets with even cheaper call and text rates. Having just been named as PNG's most innovative company in 2011, Digicel enables users to access Facebook through their mobile phones, tweet via SMS, offers a cheaper alternative to the iPad, and has recently launched high-speed mobile broadband internet.
Digicel is not the only company taking advantage of an increasingly connected PNG. The Bank of the South Pacific now offers SMS text banking — account holders can check balances, transfer money and check their last three transactions on their mobiles.
Almost two years ago, when I was pinned with the task of setting up the Lowy Institute's Twitter account, I struggled to track down one single Twitter account that operated from the Pacific Islands (outside of a handful of Fiji tourism companies).
Today, if I jump on Twitter or Facebook and conduct a quick search, I am drowning in Pacific Island tweeters and potential Facebook friends. They are sharing opinions, having conversations, texting money, linking to blogs and starting debates. PNG is not alone; the entire Pacific region is twittering its way towards a more connected future. These vital connections have an important role to play in lifting a greater proportion of the population out of poverty.
Photo by Flickr user kahunapulej.