On the tiny Southwest Pacific island of Niue, located 1,500 miles northeast of New Zealand, visitors are surprised to find a tropical paradise that offers something unexpected.
But it’s not the rugged coral coastline, with its breathtaking limestone chasms and fascinating coves instead of long white sand beaches found on other Pacific islands. After flying in on the weekly Air New Zealand service and settling into their hotel, tourists are often pleasantly surprised to find that this tiny island nation with 1,400 residents was the first country in the world with free Internet service.
A self-governing state in free association with New Zealand, Niue is one of the smallest and most isolated countries in the world. In order to be part of the global community, the people of Niue are heavily reliant on the Internet.
Fortunately, since 1997, islanders have been able to rely on the charitable organization known as The IUSN Foundation (IUSN) for the funding of technical support, education and infrastructure development that has brought continually-innovative, free, and reliable Internet service to Niue – the best in the Asia-Pacific Region, in fact.
From Crank Telephones to the World Wide Web
The Niue Internet system is the brainchild of The IUSN Foundation’s technical manager, Richard St. Clair. When St. Clair first arrived in Niue as a U.S. Peace Corps volunteer in 1994, his home phone number was “two longs and a short” turn of the crank handle on the side of the telephone.
Once the locals realized he had computer skills, he was asked to help create a local dial-up bulletin board network using the Niue Telecom phone lines. Known as the Savage Island Network, this system ran from 1995 to 1997 with up to 30 users, but with no connection to the outside world.
In 1997 the Government of Niue and local businesses agreed that the island needed to join the so-called “World Wide Web.” But because the government did not have the funds or expertise to do this, it decided to delegate the task to the private sector.
Fortunately for Niue, an American technology developer and Internet pioneer named J. William (Bill) Semich became interested in entering the domain business and saw growth and marketing potential in the country code domain designation for Niue, .NU. He decided to apply for the domain operations of .NU and invested in primary sales and marketing operations in Northern Europe, particularly Sweden, because of the marketing power that .NU – which translates to “now” in Swedish – held for growth potential. Because it was a speculative venture that had no certainty of success at its outset– the Internet was novel but unproven – the Niue government welcomed Semich’s involvement.
Semich formed a nonprofit corporation, now known as The IUSN Foundation, with St. Clair and local journalist Stafford Guest. Semich’s idea was that the successful marketing of .NU domain names would generate the funds to develop the necessary infrastructures to bring Internet service to the government and people of Niue. It would, he hoped, be sufficiently profitable to make Internet service affordable for all Niueans.
This vision was more than realized – by June 1999 in collaboration with technical support provider Internet Niue, access to full Internet services was established, which were then progressively opened to all permanent Niuean residents and the government of Niue at no cost (apart from a one-time $25 connection fee). In the years since, this free Internet service has continued to innovate, resulting in the present WiFi offering island-wide. Up until 2016, Niue was the only country in the world with a free Internet service as a result of these successful and continued efforts.