​What3Words digital addresses spread to island nations

For countries with missing or broken postal address systems, assigning three-word labels to every geographic spot on the planet can be useful.

The tiny Tongan island of Kelefesia has no roads, but now it has addresses through What3Words.

Screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

An unusual high-tech addressing system will arrive in Tonga and Sint Maarten as the island nations skip conventional street numbers and postal codes.

The countries announced deals for their postal services to use a novel addressing system from UK startup What3Words. The technology assigns three-word names to each 3-by-3 meter patch of land on the planet. For example, the Tongan royal palace is located at refresh.soundboard.remove and the tiny island of Kelefesia is at bailing.streaks.reunify.

What3Words illustrates how digital technology can help people leapfrog developments that are slow and expensive to establish. Mobile phones have bypassed physical telephone lines in many developing nations, for example, and payment apps can streamline commerce that otherwise would require banks.

But what's wrong with addresses like 123 Main Street? Nothing, but on Tonga's 36 inhabited islands, there are few named streets, and What3Words makes the hassles of assigning names evaporate. Sint Maarten had the opposite problem: multiple attempts to introduce addressing systems to fast-developing areas have left some buildings with multiple addresses and others with none.

"The volume of international mail we have to deal with has increased dramatically in recent years and consumption of e-commerce is rapidly rising across the islands. It's essential we have the delivery infrastructure that can meet this demand, from customers in cities to those on the smallest islands," said Siosifa Pomana, who heads Tonga's post office system, in a statement Friday. "What3words' system has already addressed everywhere in Tonga so we can roll out our service immediately."

Sint Maarten and Tonga are the third and fourth nations to adopt What3Words after Mongolia and the Ivory Coast.

What3Words works in places that already have functioning address systems. Those can be good enough to get a package to your house but can't cover every spot you might need to locate. It's useful for telling your friend where that nice mountain bike trail begins or remembering where you parked your car in the mall's parking lot.

But it's not perfect: You need a phone or computer to translate the three words into a physical location, there's no What3Words support in popular navigation tools like Google Maps, and adjacent patches have totally unrelated names so you can't tell what country a three-word label is in, much less what neighborhood.

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