On 11 April 2020, Dr Ranulf Scarbrough CMgr got a call from the telecoms operator on Aitutaki, the second largest of the Cook Islands. Its satellite antenna dish was faulty. People in the tiny Pacific nation were suffering hourly outages in service.
Scarbrough had a big call to make. They could, in theory, switch the internet provision to the newly installed submarine cable that would bring broadband services to the islands for the first time. But switching would mean launching at least four months early.
With the COVID-19 pandemic taking hold, people were relying on the internet to keep up with news and connect with loved ones around the world. But would the crucial new system hold?
Scarbrough had been in the Cook Islands since 2018, working on the huge, high-pressure project to install cable internet. The islands had previously been reliant on expensive and unreliable satellite internet. Heavy rain was enough to disrupt the signal. “It was a bit like going back to the ’80s,” Scarbrough says.
He’s driven by the belief that everyone should have access to good telecoms, no matter where they live. He spent 13 years at BT and a further two at Openreach improving services in places like Cornwall. Over the years, he has learned that the more remote a settlement, the more important its connectivity is.
Back to the Cook Islands. The project there was part of an international partnership between the islands, French Polynesia, Samoa and Niue, bankrolled in part by the New Zealand government and the Asian Development Bank. The finished Manatua cable would be 3,600km long, connecting six islands, including Rarotonga and Aitutaki in the Cook Islands.
The other nations had telecoms organisations already established, but Scarbrough and his team would be forming a new one. “We were a little bit behind, organisationally,” he says. Any day of delay would potentially cost $50,000. Time was of the essence to get the organisation up and running. There was no-one on the island with experience of installing submarine cables, so Scarbrough had to put the time in to identify islanders with transferable skills and traits.
“I’d rather have someone who’s up for a new challenge, transferring their skills from another area to help us grow beyond where we are,” he says. “I’m quite sceptical about taking someone who’s done exactly the same job. Why would you want someone who has done exactly the same thing for most of their career? Where’s their drive to learn something new?”
One member of the team, Tania Apera, illustrates Scarbrough’s point. Apera earned an electronic engineering degree in Auckland and was working with the airport authority, which has a strong focus on quality and safety. That mindset was an asset to the project. “It worked really well and has given her a career path,” Scarbrough says.
What’s more, Scarbrough himself had to fight the temptation to fit in with the local way of doing things. “I’d been brought in to give an outsider’s perspective on what needed to be done, but human instinct tells us to adapt in order to fit in.” At the same time, he had to teach the local team how the project should run, with the pressure of investor expectations hanging over his head. “It can be quite isolating and quite lonely,” he says. “Self-doubt can creep in.”
Scarbrough’s family were with him for most of the time he was on the Cook Islands, but they flew back to the UK as the COVID-19 pandemic worsened. Scarbrough wasn’t able to rejoin them until December 2020. “It was a pressurised environment, despite the appearance of lovely palm trees and lagoons.”
When the time came in April 2020 to launch early, Scarbrough decided to go with it. After all, people needed the service. The system worked. The island was soon using the new cable technology without knowing it.
“It’s what we had to do to keep the island online,” he says. “This is the thing about remote communities; they're resourceful and resilient.”
That quick, decisive thinking kept the islanders connected at a time when it was necessary to monitor the progression of the pandemic. It also meant that the Cook Islands were the first of the four nations to have the cable service up and running. “We started from the back but finished at the front. I’m quite proud of that.”
Here are two videos that bring this incredible undersea adventure to life. Well worth a watch!
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