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Cable landing

Internet cable for St Helena: ‘We’re interested’, says the Castle

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.”

J Clingham

St Helena Broadband campaign needs support, says Johnny

Expat Saint Johnny Clingham has expressed dismay on his blog that few people on St Helena have backed the campaign to secure high-speed broadband for the island. He fears islanders don’t understand what they’re missing.
The entire island – population 4,000 – shares less than half the bandwidth found in many UK housesholds. Johnny has written in the past about Saints risking a month’s wages if they exceeded their limited quota of time online.
‘Most people on the island cannot stay on Facebook for more than 10 minutes a day because they cannot afford the internet,’ says Johnny.
He notes that even Saints in the UK aren’t signing up to support the campaign – though this could be because of difficulties getting the message out.
The story’s been picked up by the BBC News website for Brazil, here.
Visit the Connect St Helena website here.

Cable landing

Who wants to go to St Helena where iPhones don’t work?

St Helena’s dismal internet connection will deter people from travelling to the Island when its airport is built, according to a telecoms blogger in Germany.

Martin Sauter, “a thought leader” in the industry, is aghast that St Helena’s 4,000 residents have to share a broadband connection that has less than half the bandwidth of his own connection at home.

He lends his voice to a campaign to route a new undersea high-speed cable via St Helena.

‘The British government wants to build an airport on St. Helena to stimulate tourism,’ notes Sauter. ‘But really, who wants to go there when Internet connectivity is limited at best and your iPhone can’t communicate with the rest of the world? Ten years ago, this might still have worked. Today only those suffering from communication overload might consider it. I doubt one can fill planes that way.’

Saint blogger Johnny Clingham has also joined the criticism of St Helena’s internet connectivity. ‘The internet is overpriced and so slow as you can barely send a large attachment email on a daily basis or connect to a cloud service,’ he says.

‘Most users on St Helena… are aware that it could cost them a month’s wages if they used more that their capped limit.’

The internet connection is via an ageing satellite, and frequently drops out because of ‘sun outages’ that are advertised in the island newspapers.

The Connect St Helena campaign now reports (20 January) that the chief executive of the South African company laying the cable is willing to consider routing it via the island. However, there would be a cost of several million pounds.

The campaigners say that’s a small fraction of what the UK government is spending on the new airport.

But as Martin Sauter points out, ‘in the 21st century, connectivity to the rest of the world is not just planes and ships.’

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