Michael McDonald, December 10, 2020
The Dept. of Commerce and the AS Territorial Broadband Strategy Work Group recently hosted a 3rd Talanoaga Fa’atekolonosi, or Tala-Tek, with this 3rd forum focused on Creating a Digital Economy. The first 2 forums were on Cyber Security and Telehealth, both very important topics especially in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. When the coronavirus hit early in 2020, communities across the globe went into lockdown in an attempt to ‘flatten the curve’ and stop the spread of the virus. Here at home, in American Samoa, all school campuses were closed, government offices pulled back to shorter work weeks, and businesses had to shorten their hours all in an effort to prepare for the arrival of the virus. When this occurred, here and abroad, internet usage spiked as communities transitioned to work-from-home arrangements (remote working), schools pivoted to distance learning, and families stayed indoors (what do you do when you are stuck at home? Right, internet!) As reported by the World Health Organization in April of this year, there has been a fivefold increase in cyber-attacks since the arrival of COVID-19. Higher internet usage = higher cyber security risks. Telehealth immediately jumped from a sluggish, back burner “project” to the newest game in town, with communities everywhere leveraging broadband to improve the delivery and quality of healthcare to their citizens. These two areas, cyber security and telehealth, register with most people as pretty straight forward and easy-to-grasp telecom priority areas especially in light of COVID-19. But as we prepared for the 3rd Tala-Tek on Digital Economy, we began to realize just how abstract the subject matter can be, especially when it comes to application of tasks and strategies to help American Samoa build said Digital Economy.
By definition, a Digital Economy is the economic activity that results from billions of online connections between people, businesses, devices, data, and processes. It is this ‘economic activity’ that is of most interest to us. What is it? How do you define it? How do you create it? How do you gain access to it? How do you make it grow? How do we benefit from it? The questions are endless. However, before we can readily partake in this digital economy, either as a small-timer, major contributor, or an average joe, there are key pre-requisites that MUST be in place before it’s game on.
One of our two Tala-Tek keynote speakers was Sudhir Ispahani. Mr. Ispahani has been in the broadband game since the early 1980’s and has deployed broadband in communities around the world. Key to Sudhir’s tala-tek talk was what he referred to as the key tenants and foundational elements that are essential to create a digital economy. To hear his talk and to find more information on Sudhir, visit broadband.as.gov.
According to Sudhir, there are 5 foundational elements required to enable a digital economy – 1) being able to connect to the rest of the world via the internet (fast and reliable); 2) these connection are extended all the way to the home or premises via a physical connection; 3) there is a modern wireless infrastructure in place; 4) develop coherent set of digital data centers that are hyper scalable; and 5) ensure cybersecurity measures are in place. For those of you paying close attention, check boxes for #1, #2, and #3 are already done. Item #4 has had a great deal of attention paid to it, especially during the recent local campaign season. Creating data centers in American Samoa was central to economic development plans for at least one gubernatorial team, and definitely on the table for the others. There are ongoing discussions in this area, which is great, as to whether data centers are a good idea, a bad idea, or a viable idea especially due to the very high capital expenditures of standing up data centers and the extremely high operating costs of running one. When you take these costs into account and also consider cloud services are being offered at very low rates already from a large variety of providers, and they are readily available to any organization in American Samoa, perhaps a blended approach will win out in the end. But getting back to checking our boxes, if we use pre-existing data centers and cloud services to support our efforts to create a digital economy, we can check off box #4. That leaves us with #5 – cyber security. So we are right back where we began – cyber security!
Our first Tala-Tek forum took place back in June and it centered on cyber security as it was by far the most important issue discussed by the Territorial Broadband Strategy Workgroup at that point. For those of you who have not yet heard of the Territorial Broadband Strategy initiative, in short, it is an ongoing initiative where by local subject matter experts are gathering weekly (since June!) to develop a strategy as to how American Samoa can best use the new Hawaiki submarine cable to improve life in American Samoa. These experts are our best and brightest local stakeholders who have jobs, duties, responsibilities, businesses, projects or a shared interest in all things relating to the internet. To catch up on the work being done by the workgroup, again feel free to visit broadband.as.gov. It was cyber security that the workgroup identified as the top priority if we are to truly realize an acceptable return on investment into the Hawaiki submarine cable. And it is cyber security again, here with our tala-tek talk with Mr. Sudhir Ispahani, that is now again at the center of this broadband discussion.
So clearly, we must take action and address the cyber security vulnerabilities that exist in American Samoa before we can build a resilient digital economy or any other internet-based industry for that matter. Vulnerabilities exist at the territorial, organizational, and individual levels and in order to best address the risks posed by our porous cyber security position, we must 1) commit to addressing the issue; 2) prioritize the issue; and 3) allocate appropriate resources to the issue. It is also extremely important at this stage to engage a tried and true industry expert who understands or can relate to the uniqueness that is American Samoa, our culture, and our customs. Someone perhaps like Mr. Michael Baukes, who was the second guest speaker at our 3rd talanoaga fa’atekolonosi. Mr. Baukes is Samoan and co-owns UpGuard (www.upguard.com), a global cyber security firm with clients like AT&T, ANZ, and the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE). Mr. Baukes has travelled to the Samoan archipelago multiple times as he still has roots and family in Samoa. Mr. Buakes, or someone with his unique credentials, could be a tremendous asset towards our efforts to lay a solid foundation for the development of a digital economy.
As our second speaker, Mr. Baukes could have spoken about cyber security at our talanoaga fa’atekonolosi, but instead he decided to touch on other key elements that he feels American Samoa should prioritize in order to build a digital economy. Mr. Ispahani had laid out a very clear picture of the basic tenants of developing a digital economy, and as such Mike delved into what he feels we need to address if we are to truly play on the larger stage that Hawaiki now presents. He pointed to three key areas: 1) Education; 2) Improved Financial Transactions/Banking; and 3) Access to services that now enable significant improvements in government. Mr. Baukes’ comments on digital banking and improved government services provides a great deal of insight and I suggest you go to broadband.as.gov and the TBS you tube channel to listen in, however his comments regarding education caught my immediate attention. Now Mike was not referring to education in the general or traditional sense, meaning that we now have access to educational resources via the internet and we should use them. That’s obvious. What he is pointing to is that if we are to build this digital economy, and frankly have any kind of hope of building industry and improving the quality of life here in American Samoa by leveraging Hawaiki, then we must zero in on 1) Digital First Education and 2) Mobile First Training and these two principles must permeate our education system as well as our collective consciousness. One of the most profound impacts we are seeing as a result of COVID-19 is the need to fast-track a digital transformation of our education system. The global pandemic forced many educational institutions to quickly become ‘digital’ and lessons were delivered via Zoom and other video streaming applications. However, many quickly realized that this approach on its own was simply ineffective. It lacked the necessary interaction and feedback loops that are required to have an effective learning experience. As such, this pivot to an online delivery is insufficient. So it follows that maybe a blended approach is the answer. I think yes, to a certain degree, but we must go even a step further and realize that even before we look to a blended delivery of classroom learning, we need to understand what digital first education means and what mobile first training means, and then move to this blended approach or something similar to achieve the most effective educational experience.
Simply put, digital first education requires that we understand and grasp that an on-line learning experience is capable of much more than what we’ve experienced during covid, that being that the zoom classroom format is a very boring, teacher-centric approach and is ‘sub-optimal’. With the tools and technology we have at our disposal, we need to think ‘digital first’ in our approach. The online learning environment provides many advantages that don’t exist in the traditional classroom setting. Distance learning is the most obvious, but we also have self-paced learning; we can also review lessons instantly simply by rewinding if information is missed or not quite understood; real-time exercises or quizzes can be integrated right into the curriculum; discussion groups and group chat are available; the use and effectiveness of video is unlimited. I am currently taking (and leading a group through) a Google IT Professional Support course myself via Coursera (www.coursera.org) and they integrate many of these features into their courses. With augmented reality and virtual reality on the rise, we will have even more tools at our disposal to enhance the learning experience.
And mobile first training means, well it means just that. We live in a mobile experience now and we can learn from anywhere and at any time. So we need to ask ourselves if we are capitalizing on this opportunity in ways that we perhaps have not thought of yet?
There are tremendous opportunities that are only now being realized across the country or the world for that matter and we are fortunate enough here in American Samoa to have the resources to be at the forefront of this transformative movement in education, IF and only if we see it, own it, and capitalize on it. So I say let’s take a real close look at what we are doing in education, what are we thinking about in education, and most importantly what are we prepared to do to truly make a difference.
So #1 Cyber Security; #2 Education. Go.