03 June 2013

British Overseas Territory of Montserrat follows St Helena, proposes submarine cable project

Montserrat is part of the Lesser Antilles, in the West Indies. ©TUBS via Wikimedia Commons
The Government of Montserrat (GoM), another small British Overseas Territory, is soliciting Expressions of Interest for a submarine fibre optic cable project which would connect the Caribbean island to one or more neighbouring islands, re-establishing broadband fibre connectivity with the rest of the world.

The island’s 5,200 residents had a fibre link which was lost after devastating volcanic eruptions in 1995. Since the natural disaster, Montserrat has been connected by a microwave link to neighbouring Antigua which provides a bandwidth of 320 MBit/s that is considered insufficient to satisfy the ever growing demand for fast Internet access. In comparison St Helena’s current international bandwidth amounts to one-sixteenth of that (20 MBit/s) but serves a population of 4,200.

A feasibility assessment performed by the GoM and the UK Department for International Development (DfID) determined that the project is both technically and economically viable and would greatly promote the island’s economic and social development. Costs are expected to reach up to $10 million and will be shared by the GoM, the UK DfID and potentially also private investors.

“The government believes that having the submarine fibre optic cable will improve the island’s capacity to attract technology-driven companies and to also deliver more services efficiently and cost-effectively,” said the government in a press release from May 29th.

According to the GoM, which has its own specialized Department of Information Technology and E-Government Services (DITES), some capacity from the proposed cable may be used to launch public broadband initiatives such as neighborhood Wi-Fi hotspots.

In an email to A Human Right Denzil West, Director of DITES, wrote that the Montserratian project has also been inspired by the ongoing campaign to connect St Helena. Referring to the similarities between both islands he stated: “Montserrat and St. Helena share the same access issues, with St Helena’s being more severe by virtue of its geographical isolation. [...] Internet access must be considered just as critically as air access or sea access. [...] This is the prime avenue through which we will enable future growth in the digital and knowledge-based world economy. [...] Our mission is to enable the future.”

This commitment by the Montserrat government highlights the importance of sophisticated international connectivity for small island nations such as St Helena, which hopes to be connected to the South Atlantic Express (SAEx) cable, slated to be signed off at the end of June.

Interested parties with the capacity to construct or operate submarine cables can download the detailed request for EOI from the Government of Montserrat’s website.

On Montserrat mobile phone penetration is approximately 100 percent of the population, fixed-line penetration is almost 100 percent of households, and fixed high-speed Internet penetration is 52 percent of households. Unlike St Helena Montserrat has liberalised its telecoms and broadcast markets in 2010 when the monopoly contract with Cable & Wireless Communications ended. Despite its small market size today there are 17 Internet service providers on Montserrat.

High-speed broadband would be huge for education. Not only could we make better use of online materials, but with affordable broadband teachers could develop their practice from home.
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.
I had to leave St Helena to study. Being 5000 miles away from my family and friends is hard. Not being able to skype with them due to the slow and expensive internet on St Helena is even harder.
Socioeconomic status is now heavily reliant on broadband penetration. With the ever-growing importance of the internet, St Helena with its limited access is in danger of being left behind.