Welcome to Wireless Niue

By Adam Stone

July 14, 2003

The small island nation in the South Pacific is embracing 802.11 to connect its people and many visiting tourists since land lines are few and far between.

The next time you sail to Niue, be sure to bring your laptop.

You do know where Niue (pronounced "new-way") is, don't you? Wi-Fi users in the boating crowd soon will, now that the South Pacific island is almost entirely rigged out with free 802.11 connectivity.

"Most of the island has no copper lines in the ground at all," explained Richard St. Clair, co-founder and technical manager of the Internet Users Society Niue (IUSN). "So we're hoping that building a WiFi infrastructure will fill in some of the places over time that the copper isn't getting to. Also, even where there are copper lines, there are not enough of them, and some of the trunks are old and noisy. Wireless, then, becomes an alternative in areas where the lines and circuits are too busy to get through or where there are no lines at all."

With a population of 2,000 and a landmass of just 259 square kilometers, Niue -- perhaps known to some as the source of the .nu domain names found on the World Wide Web -- is the world's smallest independent self-governed nation. Located 2,400 km north-east of New Zealand, its isolation and intimate coral coves draw a steady traffic of whale-watchers, snorkelers and scuba divers.

When it is not cyclone season, much of the tourist flow in this Polynesian island-nation comes from visiting yacht traffic. As the IUSN continues its already substantial rollout of 802.11 connections, yachts with Wi-Fi equipped on-board computer equipment will be able to park in the harbor and access full Internet services from their vessels, also free of charge.

Visitors to the island and others who come ashore with Wi-Fi enabled laptops also will be able to connect to the open node free of charge, as will local Internet users in the island's 13 villages. Government offices are expected to make use of the network, as a way to sidestep the more congested local telephone circuits.

The Wi-Fi rollout in the remote island nation is more than just a novelty for boaters. If network usage takes off in the coming months, Niue could perhaps serve as a model for other communities looking to develop widespread, inexpensive Internet access.

"I see it as a precursor," said Bill Semich, the Massachusetts-based president of IUSN.

"As smart young teenagers and college kids figure out you can actually get some distance with Wi-Fi, you are going to see an awful lot of sharing of broadband," Semich predicts. This in turn could have a revolutionary impact on the way people pay for their Internet access. "If you draw that out to its logical pricing effect, I thing we will see more metering of access, as opposed to the flat fee that we have now. I don't see how else the providers will be able to make up for the lost revenue, once people start sharing their broadband."

Analysts meanwhile say there is a good chance that the Niue effort will in fact succeed. In the first place, "yacht clubs seem to be a niche market," notes Julie Ask, senior analyst, Jupiter Research (an analyst firm owned by the parent company of this site). With an increasing number of boaters leaving port with Wi-Fi capabilities on board, an 802.11 connection is becoming a valuable market differentiator for high-end marinas.

At the same time, said Ask, some unknowns remain. "Wireless is always trickier in bad weather: More susceptible to interference caused by rain, wind" and so on, she noted. Given Niue's isolated situation, "it will be interesting to hear how well it works."

In fact, the weather may be the least of the problems. "The main challenge has been the environment of Niue itself," said St. Clair. "Niue is mostly rain forest, [and] blasting a signal through the tall trees is a bit of a trick on license-free, low-power equipment. You just have to pick the path better, and put up more frequent nodes, as apposed to covering miles and miles with only one repeater."

Even in the face of such hurdles, the advent of wireless already has made a big difference in the quality of life on this South Pacific rock. "It's pretty funny really," said St. Clair. "There are people here with e-mail addresses who don't even have hot running water in their house."



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