Led by bloggers, digital entrepreneurs and social media groups in Papua New Guinea, a Pacific 'digital generation' is emerging that is increasingly influencing public debates, forming policy ideas, holding institutions accountable and coordinating political protests. The potential size and influence of the Pacific's emerging 'digital generation' is enhanced by the fact that more than 50% of the regional population is estimated to be below the age of 24.

In a new Lowy Institute Analysis research paper launched today, Digital Islands: How the Pacific's ICT Revolution is Transforming the Region, I outline how the Pacific Islands region is in the midst of an information and communication technology (ICT) revolution that could have profound implications for the region's governance and development.

My research, sponsored by the Myer Foundation Melanesia program at the Lowy Institute, reveals that digital technologies are increasingly being used in the Pacific Islands to harness, influence and project political and social change. About 60% of Pacific Islanders now have access to a mobile phone and this figure continues to climb. This has coincided and fused with another global phenomenon, the rise of social media.

This growth in mobile phone access is extraordinary given that only four years ago, six countries (PNG, Vanuatu, the Solomon Islands, Kiribati, Tuvalu and the Marshall Islands) had penetration rates of 16% or less, meaning less than just 1 in 5 people had access to a mobile phone. In Tonga, mobile penetration has risen from 3% in 2002 to 53% in 2011. Fiji, Samoa, Vanuatu and New Caledonia now enjoy mobile penetration rates of over 80%. In 2006 only 2% of PNG's population had access to a mobile phone; today this figure is fast approaching 40%. 

The mobile growth statistics are impressive, but the region is home to some of the lowest internet penetration rates in the world. For example, Only 2% of PNG's population had access to the internet in 2011 and in Solomon Islands, Samoa and Vanuatu, it is less than 10%. However, web-enabled mobile phones and Facebook phones are enabling the region to leapfrog barriers (such as remoteness, cost and availability) to computer-enabled internet access. Decreasing costs for handsets and calls, and better reception, has facilitated more widespread access, far beyond affluent urban dwellers.

There are now almost 700,000 Facebook users in the Pacific Islands, dispersed across the region's population of 10 million people. PNG is leading the region's growth in social media use with Facebook membership nearing 150,000, a figure which has tripled since mid-2011. Fiji and Samoa, also experiencing high growth in Facebook membership, are not far behind.

What makes the ICT revolution in the Pacific particularly transformative is its potential to address the region's demographic, geographic and economic challenges. The Pacific population is dispersed across hundreds of small islands and atolls, spanning an area one-third of the globe's surface. The region's distance from the economic centres of the Asia Pacific make for some of the most remote countries and territories in the world.

Digital technologies are helping Pacific Islanders participate in political dialogue and are improving social inclusiveness and development. People in both urban and rural communities are participating in debates from which they were previously excluded. Unlike radio, arguably the most important source of information for most Pacific Islanders, Facebook discussion groups and blogs provide a forum for an exchange of information and opinion where all users can participate.

My paper doesn't just analyse what is happening in the region, it also tackles the region's 'digital development' opportunities. Tools such as crowdsourcing and mobile phone applications such as those devoted to health present the Pacific Islands region with immense opportunities. Tentative steps have already been made in this area, but there is enormous scope for Pacific Islands governments, the private sector and international donors to make far better use of the region's growing ICT infrastructure.  

Most importantly, I hope to use this paper to start a discussion on The Interpreter that looks at the Pacific's digital future. What could this ICT revolution mean for the Pacific Islands region? Are the region's governments ready to grasp these opportunities? Are the region's business, civil society and donor communities equipped with the right skills, knowledge and vision to capitalise on this digital transformation? Does the region's digital emergence offer an opportunity for Australia, as the largest trade and aid partner, to reinforce and revitalise its relationship with the region? And are there areas where Australia could focus more of its public and private resources?

I hope to see Pacific and Australian government officials, academics, bloggers, civil society representatives and others take part. Please send your submissions (of about 600 words) to DCave@lowyinstitute.org and blogeditor@lowyinstitute.org to take part.

Photo by Flickr user JonJon2k8.