Top Officials from French Polynesia Seek Partnerships with UC San Diego Research Center

San Diego, Dec. 15, 2008 -- Tahiti. Bora Bora. Moorea. The names are synonymous with laid-back, exotic islands off the beaten path, where foreign tourists put down their cell phones and unplug their laptops. But top officials from French Polynesia painted a very different picture of the South Pacific islands when they recently visited the UC San Diego division of the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology (Calit2).

French Polynesian ministers visit Calit2 UC San Diego
French Polynesian officials visit the Calit2 HIPerSpace wall: (l-r) Calit2 Tour Manager Trish Stone; Minister of Education and Research Tearii Alpha; UCSD Division Director Ramesh Rao; Calit2 Director of Visualizaton Tom DeFanti; UC Berkeley Gump Station Director Neil Davies; Minister of Finance and Digital Economy Georges Puchon; Calit2 Professor of Visualization and Virtual Reality Falko Kuester; business leader Gilbert Wane; and Information and Communications Technology Advisor Karl Tefaatau.

"We are currently using satellite for bandwidth that is limited to 30 megabits per second, so we decided to invest in optical fiber that is very expensive," said Georges Puchon, Minister of Finance and Digital Economy for the French overseas territory that is mostly autonomous, while still part of the French Republic. "We are deploying nearly 5,000 kilometers of cable and will have a direct link to the United States, so now we have to make sure that we maximize the benefits of the new bandwidth for our 250,000 citizens."

Puchon was part of a delegation of French Polynesian officials, including Minister of Education and Research Tearii Alpha, Information and Communications Technology Advisor Karl Tefaatau, and business leader Gilbert Wane. The delegates visited UC Berkeley prior to arriving at Calit2, and they were joined by Neil Davies, who directs UC Berkeley's Gump South Pacific Research Station in Moorea. The Gump Station is home to the only coral reef Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) site funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF), and involves researchers from several UC campuses. Moorea is also one of only four key sites in the international Coral Reef Environmental Observatory Network (CREON).

Larry Smarr and Digital Moorea
Returning from a visit to Moorea in 2007, Calit2 Director Larry Smarr and scientist John Graham use GeoFusion to fly interactively through a 3D overlay of satellite images of Moorea during a discussion of ways to safeguard the Polynesian island's coral reefs.

"This is the first delegation from French Polynesia at ministerial level to visit the Berkeley and San Diego campuses since the establishment of the Gump Station in 1985, so it's an historic occasion," observed Davies about the Nov. 21-25 visit. "The delegation outlined needs and opportunities in French Polynesia on one side, and heard about the research capacity and interests of the University of California on the other. The goal: to identify potential areas of collaboration and to initiate ideas for joint research programs."
The San Diego itinerary stemmed, in part, from previous contacts established by Calit2 Director Larry Smarr. Smarr currently sits on the UC Gump Station's advisory board. In 2007, at the invitation of the UC Santa Barbara faculty who are the PIs on the NSF Moorea Coral Reef LTER, Smarr spent time at the Gump Station to study how best to bring high performance cyberinfrastructure to the station, notably in support of efforts at saving Moorea's coral reefs. 

"The French Polynesian plan is truly visionary," said Smarr, who is also a professor of computer science in UC San Diego's Jacobs School of Engineering. "Moorea is the only place in the world where the whole ecosystem will be DNA coded [thanks to the Moorea Biocode Project funded by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation]. Scientists around the world will need to work with these data sets and collaborate with partners in Moorea, and this wouldn't be possible without the investment in transoceanic fiber bandwidth."

Calit2 is also involved in discussions on the Digital Moorea project, in which several UC campuses and MIT are exploring new approaches to the digital surveillance of marine ecosystems, including deployment of sensor networks and robots to monitor coral reefs.

Tahiti to Hawaii undersea cable
French Polynesia is investing in optical fiber between its major islands (inset), interconnecting to the first undersea cable linking Tahiti to Hawaii. The Honotua network is scheduled to be up and running in 2010.
In the briefing for Calit2 officials, Tearii Alpha, Minister of Education and Research, said French Polynesia wants to establish long-term relationships with U.S. and other international research institutions. "Our traditional industries such as tourism, fishing and pearls are under pressure, so we are now looking at the IT sector for long-term growth," said Alpha. "We are planning to set up a 'technopark' in Tahiti, and we are looking at research which needs a lot more bandwidth than we have today."

The French Polynesian officials expressed interest in what types of facilities or services they could provide that would be attractive to California companies or research institutions, which might be attracted to Moorea as a destination for research, classes, retreats, sabbaticals, conferences, or for 'scientific tourism'. Prior to visiting Calit2, the ministers met with officials at the Corporation for Education Network Initiatives in California (CENIC). They emerged from that meeting and said they are now considering setting up a similar entity in French Polynesia to promote the use of their newfound bandwidth in the education and research sectors.

France, through the Office des Postes et Télécommunications (OPT) - the island's principal telecom provider - is effectively funding the aggressive push to connect French Polynesia with research centers around the world. In January 2008, OPT signed a deal with Alcatel-Lucent Submarine Network (ASN) for the latter to lay 4,650 kilometers of undersea optical fiber between Tahiti and Hawaii. The link to Hawaii will provide French Polynesia with an on-ramp to high-speed U.S. commercial and research networks, as well as undersea cables to key Asian countries.

Ramesh Rao with French Polynesian Ministers
Calit2's Ramesh Rao (at left) with visitors from French Polynesian officials including Education and Research Minister Tearii Alpha (far right) and Minister of Finance Georges Puchon (third from right).

In addition, ASN is laying 305 kilometers of cable linking Tahiti and the rest of the Society Islands, one of five archipelagos that constitute French Polynesia. 

"Fiber optic cable will not only link Tahiti to Hawaii, but will also connect populations on all of the Society Islands - six islands from Tahiti to Bora Bora - which account for the vast majority of the French Polynesian population," said Gump Station director Davies. "This presents a remarkable opportunity to make French Polynesia one of the most digitally enabled societies in the world."

The Honotua optical fiber network is scheduled to be completed in April 2010, at a cost of 72 million euros (nearly US$95 million at the current exchange rate). While the cable currently being laid has a maximum capacity of 32 10Gbps lines, the initial capacity will consist of two 10Gbps wavelengths. (According to the Gump Station's Davies, the research field station today can only count on satellite-based ADSL connectivity at 512 kilobits per second.)

Jurgen Schulze with French Polynesian delegation
Calit2 Project Scientist Jurgen Schulze (far right) explains how the StarCAVE virtual reality environment works.

At Calit2, the French Polynesian officials said the government is now committed to doubling the maximum capacity to 64 10Gbps, and pointed to a report on areas that could be enabled by the new bandwidth, including life sciences, renewable energy, and data centers. In Atkinson Hall, the visitors were treated to a series of technology demonstrations to highlight the need for visualizing science. The demos included ultra-high-definition, live streaming video on Calit2's 4K system (four times the resolution of high-definition TV); 3D immersive in the StarCAVE virtual-reality environment; the Varrier autostereoscopic (3D without glasses) tiled display; and the HIPerSpace system, one of the highest-resolution display systems in the world, at 286 million pixels.

In his remarks, the Finance Minister also indicated that French Polynesia won't stop building out its IT infrastructure. It has already held talks on extending the optical-fiber network from Tahiti to New Caledonia, where it would intersect with existing fiber to Sydney, Australia. The government has also held talks with Chile about a direct link from Tahiti - a link that could eventually make Tahiti a crucial link in the trans-Pacific communications chain. "We may eventually serve communications between South America and China," said Puchon.

Recently returned from a three-week stay in Australia [see Related Link below], Calit2 Director Larry Smarr is convinced that French Polynesia can become a hub for connectivity in the region. "I think you'll find lots of support in Australia," Smarr told the delegates. "You are on the front lines of global environmental challenges such as global warming and sea-level rise, so connectivity means French Polynesia can be a living laboratory for scientists around the world to study the adaptation of coral reefs to greatly increased stress."

Media Contacts

Doug Ramsey, 858-822-5825,

Related Links
French Polynesia
Larry Smarr in Australia
Coral Reef Environmental Observatory Network