By Alfred Sasako
A French company is believed to have won the contract to supply fibre optic cable for the joint Papua New Guinea – Solomon Islands’ multi-million dollar undersea cable project, it was revealed this week.
The company which remains unnamed won the bid over two other rivals, including an American firm.
“It (the French company) has begun manufacturing the cables,” an insider told Island Sun earlier this week. It is not clear how long this part of the project would take.
China’s telco giant, Huawei initially won the multi-million dollar project, but Solomon Islands was forced to drop the Chinese company after Australia intervened.
Australia’s federal government instead selected Vocus to conduct the initial stages of the new undersea cable project in the South Pacific that will connect the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea with Australia.
The Department of Foreign Affairs signed a AU$2.8 million deal with the Australian telco company in January this year, allowing the company to conduct a scoping study for the design, construction and procurement of the submarine cable system.
The project will connect the major islands of the Solomons and PNG with Australia via a 4000-plus kilometre fibre optic cable, replacing each country’s reliance on old, unstable and expensive technologies, the Australian government said at the time.
The Solomon Islands currently has its telco needs wholly served by satellite, while PNG uses a low capacity cable that is nearing its end of life.
The study would last for up to three months and included consultation with the governments of the Solomon Islands and PNG and the commencement of permitting, Vocus said in a statement at the time.
It was expected to lead to the “rollout of a cable system on behalf of the Australian Government commencing in 2018”.
The cable project, which originally covered only the Solomons, was planned to be constructed by Chinese telecoms giant Huawei.
But that deal had come up against stiff opposition from the Australian government, who remain concerned about Huawei’s alleged links to the Chinese government and were worried about the possibility of a backdoor into Australia’s telecommunications network
The same concerns led to Huawei being blocked from bidding for work on Australia’s National Broadband Network (NBN) back in 2012.
In November last year, Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Papua New Guinea Prime Minister Peter O’Neill came to an agreement on the sidelines of the 2017 APEC Forum to lay a new cable between Port Moresby and Australia, while Australia continued discussions with the Solomon Islands government about “laying a similar undersea cable”.
“Both Papua New Guinea and Australia are committed to working with Solomon Islands to lay the undersea cables at the same time, allowing Solomon Islands to reap the same economic and development benefits of fast and reliable telecommunications,” Turnbull said then.
“We think that this will incur less debt. We will be doing a scoping study, and that scoping study and the financing for that scoping study will come out of our overseas development assistance,” a senior government minister said.
Solomon Islands government officials have now confirmed that security concerns were merely used by Canberra as an alibi.
“The real reason is economic rather than security. Australia does not want Solomon Islands to have direct access to China’s economic boom,” one official said recently.
A especially equipped ship laying cable on a similar project