The cost of connecting St Helena up to an undersea internet cable would be “very substantial”, according to the island government. It has confirmed that it is investigating the idea.
But the man behind the Connect St Helena campaign has challenged a claim – from an unnamed source – that the price could reach $50 million. Christian von der Ropp says it could cost only a tenth of that figure, after which it should cost around the same as the current satellite link.
St Helena – one of the world’s most remote inhabited islands – currently receives very limited bandwidth via satellite.
Islanders can pay just under £20 a month for “Lite” internet access, allowing them to download less data than iPhone owners generally use, according to figures on the campaign website. They would have to pay five times what UK web users pay for a similar amount of data.
But the average salary on St Helena is £4,500, well under a fifth of the UK average – meaning the cost of internet, compared with average salary, is more than 25 times higher than in the UK – for a much slower service.
It was disclosed in the UK parliament on 13 March 2012 that St Helena Government (SHG) was exploring a way to secure cheaper internet for the island, bringing a fast connection within the reach of ordinary islanders.
‘We can’t afford to talk to our families’
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It was not made clear whether the plan was to try to link to a proposed undersea cable between South Africa and America.
The cable was initially set to pass several hundred miles north of St Helena. The Connect St Helena campaign has been pressing for it to “land” on the island, or for a spur to be added linking Jamestown to the cable.
A statement from The Castle in Jamestown said:
“The island already has broadband provided by Cable & Wireless. SHG is in discussion with C&W regarding a possible new licence and one of the elements being considered is an improvement on the current broadband offering.
“SHG is also in discussions with the providers of the proposed South Atlantic Express submarine cable to see if it might be viable for a spur from this to serve St Helena.
“The potential costs involved in this project are very substantial and any decision would depend on many different elements, including the overall financial viability of the proposed cable.”
Mr von der Ropp, an island-watcher in Germany who launched the Connect St Helena campaign, says that St Helena Government initially had problems communicating with eFive, the company behind the cable project.
“What we know is that shortly after we launched our campaign, eFive Telecoms expressed readiness to route the cable via St Helena.” From that point, he says, SHG has succeeding in having talks with the company.
It had been reported in the media that it would not be possible to route the cable via St Helena, but Mr von der Ropp says eFive’s current chief executive has asked three cable-laying firms to quote prices for doing just that.
“She promised me to provide more precise cost estimates once they have received offers from all potential cable builders,” he says in an email to consultants in the United States who have taken an interest.
“Our current figure of costs amount to mid-single digit millions of British pounds.” That figure is based on discussion with an industry source, says Mr von der Ropp.
One potential stumbling block could be the commercial interests of Cable & Wireless, which has an exclusive contract to provide communications for St Helena. Its position has not yet been made public.
Mr von der Ropp – who has never been to St Helena – first heard about its poor internet service from a friend, Thomas Fledrich, a space scientist who lived on the island in 2009.
He says he “has become fascinated by this picturesque island and its small population” – ironically, through information found on the internet.
The campaign website has a link to an American organisation that presses for wider access to the internet for remote communities as a human right, “and a basic requirement for education, health and democracy as well as for cultural and economic development.”