Digital transformation in Timor-Leste

| September 1, 2023

When Australian Foreign Affairs Minister Penny Wong visited Dili last month, one of the projects she highlighted was the Timor-Leste South Submarine Cable.

This is a positive contribution to Timor-Leste’s digital infrastructure. However, to fully realise the social and economic benefits of digital approaches, Timor-Leste will need to undergo an inclusive digital transformation. This will mean implementing clear policies on privacy, security and interoperability, developing digital skills equitably across the population, building cybersecurity awareness, and promoting user-centric and inclusive design.

A recent report from the Asia-Pacific Development, Diplomacy & Defence Dialogue discussed the need for Australia to play a wider role in this process so that Timor-Leste can reap the benefits of digital transformation while building resilience against its risks.

Technological change is one of the most critical issues facing Timor-Leste. Its strategic plan for digital development aims to ‘achieve a society where all can create and share value and contribute to the Digital Age and development of a digital economy’. It has an inclusive vision for a fully digitalised economy that enables younger generations to compete in the global market of work and development opportunities and provides better access to government services for vulnerable people.

Australia’s immediate focus is on linking Timor-Leste to the North-West Cable System that runs from Darwin to Port Hedland in Western Australia. Following Australia’s successful role in delivering the Coral Sea Cable System—the 4,700-kilometre cable linking Australia, Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands—the Australian Infrastructure Financing Facility for the Pacific (AIFFP) is helping finance a similar project in Timor-Leste.

Working closely with Timor-Leste’s government on what will be the first undersea cable into the country, the AIFFP is investing $1.5 million in exploring design and route options and technical requirements to ensure the cable meets the country’s needs.

Linking Timor-Leste to the undersea cable system is an important initial step in achieving robust and reliable connectivity infrastructure there. However, just one cable and one telecommunications provider won’t ensure equitable access to digital tools and resources. Australia can also help Timor-Leste’s digital transformation provide the widest possible benefit by supporting healthy competition that drives cheaper access and recommending regulations that protect the end user.

The World Bank predicts that improved internet connectivity supported by Australia in comparable countries—Papua New Guinea and Solomon Islands—could contribute US$5 billion to the Pacific economy and create close to 300,000 new jobs by 2040 through remote access to opportunities in business, education and health.

Greater support for Timor-Leste would build on work like the Australia-funded Liga Inan (‘connecting mothers’) program, which strengthens relationships between mothers and midwives through mobile phones. More than 130,000 pregnant women are participating, and the likelihood of their children being born with a skilled birth attendant present has doubled.

As well as investing in infrastructure and encouraging competition, Australia should support digital capability building and invest in digital literacy—both in the media and general public—and English-language education.

Some analysts have raised the concern that China could capitalise on the cable as a pipeline for Chinese state media into Timor-Leste—a possibility that highlights the importance of digital literacy and a robust media.

A strong media is crucial to democracy, and Timor-Leste has a vibrant media landscape that’s among the freest in the region. The Australian government should support Timor-Leste’s media so that it can keep putting the public interest first. Australia can help build media capacity to cover important issues such as social inclusion, gender equity, health, financial literacy, misinformation and disinformation.

This would build on work Australia’s ABC has already begun. In March, it signed a memorandum of understanding with the Timor-Leste public broadcaster RTTL. ABC International will work with RTTL to help it establish a news service for its new English-language channel, share content from ABC newsrooms and work with RTTL staff to build up their skills. Other activities include establishing a network of Pacific journalists with a local correspondent based in Dili, the syndication of ABC content to local media providers, and a capacity-building program planned to help Timor-Leste media associations train and upskill journalists.

Pacific geopolitics and concerns about Chinese influence have shone a brighter light on Timor-Leste and its importance to regional stability, but seeing Timor-Leste as a pawn in a larger power game isn’t in its interest or Australia’s. Australia supporting Timor-Leste’s digital transformation is an investment in Timor-Leste’s strength and that of the whole Pacific—it is valuable for its own sake. It should be considered by leaders with only that goal in mind.