From Tuna to Telecommunications in American Samoa

Almost 7,000 miles from the nation’s capital is a community of five islands and two coral atolls with a rich Polynesian history. American Samoa, the United States’ southernmost territory, is spread across approximately 76 square land miles and is home to approximately 50,000 Samoans. 

The island community officially joined the United States in 1900. Officials at various levels of government are working to address its crippling digital divide. 

Data from the Federal Communications Commission reports that 99.97% of residents have access to broadband at both the 25/3 and 100/10 Mbps speeds. This data paints a rosy and incomplete picture of this service provided almost exclusively through a single provider.  

Michael McDonald, the Territorial Planner for the Department of Commerce in American Samoa, has been a leading force in the fight to close the digital divide in their community. He understands that widespread connectivity is directly tied to bolstering the local economy. While broadband improvements have always been a hot topic, McDonald explained that COVID-19 “magnified the need for quality broadband and everything that comes with being able to function remotely.”

American Samoa entered the digital age in a unique position. Prior to 2009, the island community relied exclusively on satellite internet offerings. McDonald admits that for a community that is very remote, broadband has been difficult to deploy and hard to afford. In 2009, local leaders and private partners repurposed a section of the old Pac Rim East cable system to create  the American Samoa Hawaii (ASH)  Cable but this decades old connection only provided the island with a one gigabyte connection to Hawaii’s Internet backbone. 

Advocates and local leaders celebrated in 2009 when the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act provided a $90 million grant to the government-owned American Samoa Telecommunications Authority (ASTCA) to develop a reliable broadband infrastructure network. Using this support to motivate their work, ASTCA designed and deployed a fiber to the premises network that would reach “all” homes and businesses across the island group. 

From 2009-2017, in McDonald’s words, attempting to get online was “just a horrible experience.”

In 2018, American Samoa saw a broadband development that would change the face of connectivity in their community for generations. Through a partnership between Australia and the United States, American Samoa joined the Hawaiki Undersea Fiber Optic Cable that boasts a capacity of 200 gigabytes for the island. 

Local leaders invested between $35-37 million dollars in the broadband update because, according to McDonald, “the potential that [cable] has to transform a community as remote as we are” is incalculable. With this development supporting their intra-island fiber optic network, McDonald believes that they are further ahead in broadband deployment than many remote communities in the mainland U.S.

Now, Michael and his team at the Department of Commerce are focused on designing and implementing their Territorial Broadband Strategy. His office developed a working group to build the strategy that consists of IT and broadband specialists from across the government, private sector partners, and the Chamber of Commerce. Their ultimate goal is to improve the quality of life for every resident of American Samoa through broadband connectivity. 

As they develop a greater understanding of their community’s needs, Michael says the plan will tackle two major challenges: infrastructure and adoption. Like most of the mainland U.S., American Samoa faces an affordability crisis. Broadband costs approximately$55/month for households that in many cases make only $200 every two weeks. Many Samoans also face a learning curve in a community where prior experience with technology or the Internet is minimal. 

American Samoa must also grapple with a perpetual problem that most mainland Americans never experience. “We almost always get forgotten,” McDonald poignantly stated.

Michael said that while their Congresswoman Aumua Amata is a tireless advocate in Washington, DC, many conversations and agencies often forget to include American Samoa in broadband planning. For instance, in the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021, a Bill that provided billions of dollars to support broadband deployment, Native Hawaiin homeland was included in money earmarked for Tribal communities but the bill failed to include other Pacific Islander communities. 

Nonetheless, the Samoan people have not let being overlooked discourage their work to find resources to address their broadband needs. Internally, they have bolstered their grant writing processes and are constantly seeking public and private funding for innovative solutions. 

For generations, the American Samoa economy has been centered around one major industry – tuna canning. The island community is home to StarKist’s largest tuna canning factory, whis is the largest private employer in American Samoa. While McDonald hopes that StarKist always remains an integral member of their community, they are developing their telecommunications infrastructure to diversify their economy, hoping to invite new investments from within the island and around the globe. 

As McDonald looks toward the future, he is optimistic about American Samoa’s prospects. Their work thus far has already made them the most connected American territory in the Pacific, and they are just getting started.

Their next goal is encouraging the community to focus on broadband as their newest and increasingly prosperous resource. McDonald and his team know there is no set roadmap for what comes next, so they are ready to draw their own. 

American Samoa is currently known for their abundance of tuna, but they are now leaning on what McDonald called their best resource. “The Samoan people. Our people are bright, educated, eager to learn, grow, develop, and create.”

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