The 2,200 British residents of the Isles of Scilly are to enjoy high-speed broadband from 2014, thanks to a £3.7 million scheme funded by bodies in the UK and Europe, reports Christian Von Der Ropp of the Connect St Helena campaign.
Island councillor Mike Hicks said it would bring a more prosperous future, helping tourism, farming and education.
“Meanwhile,” says Christian, “St Helena, which is significantly more isolated, has a population almost twice as large that is expected to grow once its airport becomes operational in 2016, struggles to secure £10 million for its link to the planned South Atlantic Express cable.”
Hopes of bringing high-speed internet access to St Helena have been given a strong boost with reports of a contract deal.
The plan involves connecting the island to an undersea cable that eFive Telecoms wants to lay between South Africa and Brazil.
The company has now awarded a contract to supply nearly ten thousand kilometres of fibre optic cable for the South Atlantic Express (SAEx) project.
From Brazil, onward fast access to North America and Asia would be possible.
A spur from the telecoms cable could be run to St Helena – but only if funding can be raised.
St Helena Government has confirmed in the past that the idea was being actively pursued.
It is understood to have been cautiously interested from the early stages. The project was then pushed into prominence when German telecoms expert Christian von der Ropp launched the Connect St Helena! campaign.
He pushed for Saints to gain better internet access as a human right, and secured international media coverage.
Reports have put the cost of linking the island to the cable at several million pounds.
Supporters have argued that high speed internet is vital to the island’s hoped-for tourism boom.
The island currently relies on a satellite connection, giving slow download speeds by global standards, even for customers paying hundreds of pounds a year.
eFive Telecoms is reported to have been issued with the licences it needs, valid for 20 years.
Financial arrangements are not expected to be finally sealed until a few months into 2013. Funders have not been named.
Mobile phone masts could soon be springing up across St Helena (except on the bits that are to have wind turbines).
On Tuesday, 26 June 2012, executive councillors agreed the terms of a new telecommunications licence that should bring mobile phone technology to Jamestown, Half Tree Hollow and – who knows? – maybe even Sandy Bay.
“Full details of the agreement will be announced shortly,” reported governor Mark Capes, “but it combines price reductions with a significant improvement in services and new investment to allow for the introduction of mobile phones.”
If the Oberoi luxury hotel group agrees to run Shelco’s hotel at Broad Bottom, it will certainly want the kind of phone technology it already uses in some of the poorest parts of the world.
For Basil Read, it will be too late: there are no telephones out on Prosperous Bay Plain, where it will be building the island’s airport for the next three years, so it has brought in its own mobile phone equipment, linked to a service provider in South Africa.
And for Johnny Clingham, a St Helenian telecoms expert based in the UK, mobile phone coverage may not be enough to bring him home.
“I think it’s something that we need to have that would be beneficial,” said Johnny, speaking from Amsterdam, where he was on a trip to research high-speed communication. “But it’s the internet we want improvement on.
“We need to see what the improvements are. Until we see the full report on what they are going to get and whether other providers will come in, we don’t know whether it’s going to meet our needs.
“Mobile phones are great, but the quality of internet service is what we need.”
Cable & Wireless has exclusive contracts to provide communications and a TV service on St Helena. At a recent executive council (ExCo) meeting, councillors voiced disquiet about the service, and the high price of phone calls and a very slow internet connection.
The company’s licences expire on 31 December 2012.
Governor Capes said lengthy negotiations gained momentum when the UK government agreed to fund the island’s airport.
“That decision means that the future market for telecoms on St Helena looks much more attractive for Cable & Wireless,” he said. “Subject to a few minor amendments, ExCo approved the licences.”
Living here for the last couple of months it’s been quite a treat NOT to have the mobile going and feel the ‘need’ to check the phone every 5 minutes. Over dinner the other night we all agreed that the lack of smart phones in particular was a good thing – there was no anti-social updating of Facebook or Twitter. Shock, horror…you actually spoke to the people you were out with. I guess progress comes with a price though?
The “very high cost” of telephone and internet services in St Helena has been debated by its executive council – as Cable & Wireless seeks to negotiate a new exclusive deal to provide telecoms on the island.
The unscheduled discussion among councillors reflects discontent among islanders over the company’s monopoly, and the fees it charges.
The company’s television charges are also due to rise, though that is because of an improvement in service prompted by an unavoidable technical upgrade.
Charges for overseas phone calls compare unfavourably with those on the sister island of Tristan da Cunha, where telephone numbers have a London 0203 code – meaning calls can be made to and from the UK at domestic rates.
Governor Mark Capes disclosed the later disquiet in his report from the Executive Council meeting of 12 June 2012. He said:
“Under Any Other Business we received an update from the Financial Secretary on the ongoing discussion with Cable & Wireless in relation to their proposals for a new ten-year exclusive licence with St Helena Government.
“A robust discussion of the issues followed in which councillors registered mounting concern about the present very high cost of telecoms and of broadband internet services in particular.”
A campaign to route an undersea cable via St Helena to provide a fast broadband service is said to have been taken up by officials in London, but it is thought it would not significantly affect the cost of internet services on the island.
The campaign to divert an underwater internet cable via St Helena continues to attract publicity around the world. The latest report is on the Computer Active website, which compares the island with an English village.
It quotes Julian Morris, chief executive for economic development on St Helena, who says: “There would need to be support from the British Government. You wouldn’t lay a submarine cable to a village in the UK and we have to be mindful of what’s realistic.
“It is something I’m working hard to make happen.”
St Helena Online understands that the idea is being pursued by officials at the Department for International Development in London, because of the economic importance to bringing high-speed internet to the island.
If this happens we may get faster Internet, but will we get cheaper Internet? We currently pay £120 a month(+10% tax) for a package that in a developed country would cost perhaps £10. Until that price comes down it won’t matter how wide the pipe, many people still won’t be able to afford to connect.
St Helena’s not the only remote island that can’t get broadband internet – but some of the more sparsely-populated outcrops of the British Isles may have found a way round the problem.
It’s called “white space” (whatever that is), and so far it’s reaching just ten homes fitted with special aerials on the Scottish island of Bute – which is bigger than St Helena, has twice as many people, and is nowhere near as isolated.
The small transmitter takes advantage of spare “spectrum” no longer needed for television broadcasts, according to BBC News.
In the meantime, if the Connect St Helena! campaign succeeds in diverting an undersea cable, it seems St Helena might actually be better off than many of those remote Scottish islands.
That’s if it isn’t already…
Could White Space help St Helena? “The short answer is ‘no’,” says Christian von der Ropp of Connect St Helena! campaign. And here’s the long answer:
“White Space” and “Digital Dividend” (N.B. not “Digital Divide”) refer to radio frequencies originally allocated to terrestrial TV broadcast service which have remained unused and instead are to be used to deliver broadband Internet to homes lacking a wired broadband connection, usually because the distance to next telephone switch is too great for telephone-line based ADSL-service. However whatever radio technology is deployed (UMTS or LTE) in this unused frequency spectrum (spectrum = a certain frequency range) it can only bridge some 10-15km and so can only serve the so-called “last mile”. These frequencies would only be suitable to deliver Internet from a radio tower on St Helena to Saints’ homes but cannot bridge those thousands of kilometres to the next large Internet hub (Luanda or Cape Town).
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.”
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.
Update on this story: the job of doctor on Tristan da Cunha has just been re-advertised. The advert seeks a medic with wide clinical experience from May 2012.
Dr Gerard Bulger runs the world’s most extreme single-handed medical practice, according to a magazine for general practitioners in the UK.
The internet has transformed medical practice on Tristan da Cunha, says Dr Bulger in a self-penned article for GP magazine. It’s made it possible for the island’s doctor to be a general practitioner, rather than a surgeon – meaning someone who is skilled in keeping people healthy rather than cutting them open.
‘Now that the internet is getting a little better here, and Skype works, doctors could now be supported by specialists back in Cape Town or in the UK when an emergency arises.’
But like St Helena, the island struggles with a bandwidth that would be considered feeble in Britain.
‘It’s 512kbs for the whole island, so if I had a crisis, everyone else would have to shut down their computers.’
Dr Bulger must also be one of the few medics in the world whose job includes checking the island’s water supply, partly to help the fish factory gain a European Union certificate.
‘I used to be irritated when my old practice in Bovingdon, Hertfordshire, was called single-handed. I said there was no such thing; the smallest practice had a practice nurse, an assistant and worked in a team. But Tristan is single-handed practice in the extreme, perhaps the last one in the world. There are no nurses, only care assistants.’
There is no airport, and supply ships are infrequent. ‘Keeping the pharmacy and consumables in stock is a nightmare, and too much goes out-of-date.’
As on St Helena, diabetes is a big problem. Dr Bulger is investigating its cause. ‘Despite all this,’ he writes, ‘the community is fit. There is true community care here.
‘To my delight, consultants in the UK are very willing to advise me by email and reassure me.
‘My favourite questions to ask consultants are medical Desert Island Discs. What eight bits of equipment or drugs would you choose, and what would be your luxury item of medical kit to have?’
For those interested in medical insights, the full article is here.
Saint Helenians are being asked to add their weight to the campaign to secure a high-speed internet link for their island.
Here’s one contribution on the campaign website, from Johnny Clingham, an island blogger now exiled to the UK:
‘I’m an IT engineer and I would love to return to my island to start an IT business, but because of the slow, expensive and unreliable internet connection, this is simply impossible.’
It’s been suggested that poor internet access could compromise efforts to establish a viable economy on the island.
At present, the island’s sole internet connection is via a Cable & Wireless satellite that is sometimes blocked by ‘sun outages’. The resident population of 4,000 people – including the government, schools and health service – has to share a connection with only half the bandwidth enjoyed by many individual households in Europe.
A fibre-optic cable is to be laid between South Africa and America, passing within 50 miles of St Helena. The company involved is willing to divert the cable; campaigners hope to persuade the UK government to put up a few million pounds to meet the additional cost involved.
The campaign is also being backed by the internet pressure group A Human Right: Everyone Connected, based in San Francisco. The organisation, which says it is now working with the United Nations, asks people to ‘imagine a future where everyone on
Earth has a voice.’
Read the campaign website here. Sign a petition on the UK government website here.