Can an Internet domain name registry and an enterprising prince transform a remote South Pacific island kingdom into a player in the information economy -- without compromising its traditions or its natural beauty? Tonga is about to find out.
Crown Prince Tupuoto'a is spearheading the tiny nation's technological transformation and driving changes that could amount to a complete reinvention of the kingdom's economy. Already the Oxford-educated prince has begun funneling revenues from domain registrations into an Internet-based distance learning program -- opening the doors to education and career possibilities that were previously inaccessible to the islanders. And now Tupuoto'a, who personally greets visitors to Tonga's tourism Web site, plans a wireless cable system to bring faster Net access to the islands.
While the prince himself doesn't give interviews, Emeline Tuita, Tonga's Consul General in the United States, says, "His Royal Highness has high aspirations for his people." The prince would love to turn the tide that has long kept the
country dependent on agriculture and swept as many as one-third of Tonga's 150,000 inhabitants abroad in their search for better education and career options. Citing Tonga's historic independent-mindedness -- it is the only
South Pacific nation never to have been colonized-- Tuita says, "I think because Tonga always wants to be different from everybody else, what they'd really like is to be the technology hub of the South Pacific."
Because of the kingdom's size, rapid transformation is a realistic possibility. "If you have 100,000 people scattered over about 260 square miles of land, you can cause revolutionary changes to happen in your kingdom awfully darn fast," says Eric Gullichsen, a co-founder and director of Tonic (Tonga Network Information Service) Corp., which runs the .to domain-name registry.
He should know; he pretty much single-handedly put Tonga on the Internet in 1995. During a prolonged visit to the islands, the American software engineer got a hankering for his e-mail, so, with the prince's blessing, he
set up a few computers running a dialup connection to a server belonging to his Sausalito, Calif., startup. Gullichsen registered the top-level domain .to in the name of "Government of the Kingdom of Tonga, H.R.H. Crown Prince Tupuoto'a," using Tonga's San Francisco consulate as a contact address. And for the next couple of years, e-mail flowed peacefully between Sausalito and the Tongan capital of Nuku'alofa, without anyone giving it much thought.
But in 1997, as speculation abounded that the United States' hoard of .com domain names would eventually run dry, Gullichsen and a former engineering colleague, Eric Lyons, got to thinking. At that point, there were just under 1 million .com domains registered -- but people were concerned about the dearth of available names and were circulating proposals to create more top-level domains, like .store and .school. Fortuitously, says Lyons, the prince was visiting California that spring, "and we said, 'You know, it seems like this real estate could be useful.'"
The prince, who is the majority owner of Tonic Corp., agreed. Gullichsen says that while the Concise Oxford Dictionary includes 140,000 words, ".com has 3 million names. You have to think they're getting
contrived and long -- and having an easy-to-remember name is important currency." Taking advantage of all the available words in the .to domain seemed a perfect money-making opportunity. "I mean,
Mamma_Mia's_Pizzeria_#23.com -- it's hard for people to remember," says Gullichsen. "But pizza.to might still be available." (In fact, it's not, though the domain seems to have little to do with pizza.)
So in late 1997, Tonic Corp. opened its domain registry to international customers. (Tonga, by the way, is not the only Pacific island state to capitalize on a catchy domain; Tuvalu has a similar program to sell registrations on its .tv domain.) Aside from a stringent anti-spam policy, Tonic places no restrictions on content and has encouraged people around the world to share its relatively untouched name supply. To date it has registered about 15,000 .to domains at a charge of $100 for the first two years.
Some, like burri.to and toma.to, are
content-free, and others, such as to.to and kyo.to, advertise willingness to sell their names for high prices. But there are companies taking advantage of .to's easy-to-remember aspect -- for example, www.forgot.to is in the process of beta-testing an e-mail-
Revenues from the Tonic Corp. fund another of the prince's projects -- the Royal School of Science for Distance Learning, which was founded in 1998 in Nuku'alofa. Aside from an occasional guest lecturer, the school doesn't offer its own classes. Instead, it provides the computers and Net connection that allow students to take classes and pursue degrees at international universities. Before the school opened, Tonga had but one small university, so most people went abroad to study -- and many of them stayed.
"If you were working and wanted to pursue higher-education goals," says Consul General Tuita, "you had to physically leave the country and be away for two or three years. By the time you came back, maybe your job was gone, or you didn't feel like you could really see yourself going anywhere in Tonga."
But now 86 students are studying in Tonga, enrolled in Internet-based distance learning programs through the Royal School of Science. Paelata Fetu'u, for example, is working on a B.S. in Criminology at Florida Gulf Coast University, which she plans to put to good use in her career with the Tonga Defence Services. Two of her colleagues are pursuing degrees in computer science, and all enjoy being able to study
without leaving the island.
"The cost is low compared to that of a full-time student in the university," she explains. "We have the same access to lectures and tutorials through the Internet as a student sitting in the university, but we don't have to pay for accommodation, and we still have the support of family at home." And the distance learning model enables Fetu'u to take classes at various schools at once. She is presently enrolled in four specialized criminology classes at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale, and will be able to transfer the credits to her degree at Florida Gulf Coast University.
Justin Kaitapu has been studying part-time at the Royal School of Science for two years, while also administering the school's network under Gullichsen's supervision. Like Fetu'u, he intends to stay in Tonga: "It's quiet and peaceful, and the honest fact is I love staying here," he says. So he's tailoring his engineering and system administration education to fit Tonga's needs.
"When most system administrators come up with a hardware problem that requires a bit of technical skill, their only option is to replace the malfunctioning part," he says. "But I would like to try and fix that hardware before considering a replacement, because here in Tonga it's quite hard to get computer parts, and worst of all, it's quite expensive."
Kaitapu has ambitious hopes for the school's Net connection, which currently runs at 128K and serves both students, who pay around $10 per month for access, and any Tonga resident willing to do their surfing at the school, for a fee of about $2 an hour. "The Royal School of Science provides Internet access only here in school," he says. "I think the best thing ... is to also provide dialup networking so that students and users
can access the Net from wherever they like. Upgrading the speed of Internet access is another major issue to look into, since most students require a download of huge files, which takes hours with the kind of speed the network is currently running."
He may soon get his wish, as his plans seem to coincide with the objectives of Tupuoto'a. Shoreline Communications, one of the prince's privately owned ventures. The company is preparing to install a Com21 wireless-cable system on the main island, says Dewayne Hendricks, general manager of Com21's Wireless Business Unit. The system would provide a 27Mbps downlink/2Mbps uplink channel, which according to Hendricks will supply voice and data telephony service to up to 2,000 active users in the initial installation, and scale up as needed.
Tonga's international telephone service is currently the exclusive province of Cable & Wireless, and domestic traffic is handled by the government-owned Tonga Telecom, which still uses mechanical switches and
commonly requires multi-year waits for a phone line installation. But Cable & Wireless's contract expires in June, and there are plans to privatize the domestic phone business at the same time. To bolster its bid to take over both services, Shoreline Communications is scheduled to deploy the Com21 system this month. "Everybody will have the equivalent of a cable modem that has two phone jacks in their home," says Hendricks. "And it's all wireless."
By replacing a foreign monopoly with a state-of-the-art local provider, the prince plans to improve Tonga's infrastructure and lower phone rates -- something his Shoreline Power company achieved in its sector, making
Tonga the region's least expensive power producer and slashing consumer costs by 25 percent. "The whole idea behind the electricity project," says Consul General Tuita, "was to get electricity costs down so that any manufacturing or big commercial enterprises can work with affordable electricity rates."
The technological investments are a natural next step. Already, Tuita sees the possibility of expanding the island's travel industry -- currently serving 30,000 tourists annually -- with Internet sales and services. "Even
agriculture stands to benefit" from the technological improvements, she says, like "more efficient information processing."
Hendricks and others have described the crown prince's efforts as an attempt to leapfrog the Industrial Age, transforming Tonga nearly overnight from an agricultural to an information economy. Tuita agrees: "We can
learn a lot from the Industrial Age from where we are, without having to go through the actual experience, because there's something more exciting down the road -- information technology."
Best of all, she says, the Tonga of the future may be able to reverse history and take better advantage of its most underutilized resource. "A great export that Tonga has right now is its people," Tuita says. If the prince's endeavors succeed, she continues, "We'll probably also have opportunities to attract people back."
Something as simple as Internet access and inexpensive telecommunications could truly revolutionize life in Tonga. "Now we've got good Net access," says Gullichsen, "and it's possible for the people not only to educate themselves to world standards without the logistical problems of bringing in instructors or shipping students
worldwide, but also for them to create intellectual property of global value -- from a pristine, beautiful, environmentally benign island location."