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Australia’s undersea cable plan hits snags

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FILE PHOTO: Workers install cables for the Australian National Broadband Network (NBN) at an apartment block in Sydney, Australia, May 30, 2017. REUTERS/David Gray

SYDNEY, (Reuters) – When Australia bankrolled undersea internet cables for its Pacific neighbours, it shut out a competing offer from Chinese telecom giant Huawei Technologies Co Ltd.

But the strategic move to spend A$91 million ($67 million) connecting Sydney with Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands via cables in the Coral Sea has perplexed many Australians.

On Norfolk Island where a connection to a cable 90 kilometres (56 miles) away would cost just A$15 million, Canberra’s decision to skip the project is galling.

“The amount of money that we’re talking about for the Solomons and PNG cables is about ten-fold what it would have cost to connect Norfolk,” Brett Sanderson, president of Norfolk Island People for Democracy, an activist group, told Reuters.

Funding for the Coral Sea links comes from Australia’s A$1.3 billion Pacific aid budget, separate from what is set aside for domestic infrastructure projects like broadband internet.

Yet with the promise of connections quicker than those in Australian cities, and as discontent with domestic telecoms near an all-time high, the project risks becoming a political liability.

“If it’s good enough for these other countries, why is it not good enough for territories that Australia claims as its own?” Mr Sanderson said.

The country’s average internet speed of 11.1 megabits per second ranks it 50th in the world. By contrast, the undersea cables can transmit 20 terabits per second, about 1.8 million times faster.

“It’s a huge disappointment,” said Alison Baker, who runs a guesthouse in the popular tourist hamlet of Kangaroo Valley, 115 kilometres south of Sydney. She said she cannot offer internet service for her guests because even her own slow connection costs more than A$250 per month.

A spokesman for the government-owned NBN Co said it was not economical to expand the fibre network, designed to connect 8 million homes.

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