16 August 2014

St Helena’s first cellular network delayed, may now receive 3G or even 4G if submarine cable comes ashore

© Mitch Aunger - Fotolia.com
In a press release published on Thursday (quoted at the bottom of this article), St Helena’s telecom monopolist, Sure South Atlantic Ltd., a subsidiary of Bahraini Batelco, has announced that the planned launch of St Helena’s first cellular telephone network will be postponed due to the bankruptcy of the contracted supplier of network equipment, Altobridge, which went into receivership on 30 May 2014. As Sure is now forced to procure a new supplier for network equipment it is expected that the cellular network won’t be ready for service before June 2015.

What appears to be a drawback may however turn out to be a benefit, as Sure points out, because the company is now considering immediately rolling out a cellular network based on the newer and much more advanced “UMTS” radio access technology which is also known as “3G” or “HSPA” instead of the 23 years old “GSM” standard (also known as “2G” and indicated by an “G” for “GPRS” or “E” for “EDGE” on many smartphones).

UMTS offers very high data rates of usually at least 21 Mbps while GSM networks cannot deliver more than roughly one-hundreth of that (0.236 Mbps using EDGE). As mobile broadband applications continue to be a main driver for technological innovations in many fields, including in e-learning, telemedicine and also in the tourism sector, it is crucial for St Helena’s digital development to have a cellular network in place capable of delivering high data rates even under high load, especially when thousands of cruise ship passengers visit the island simultaneously and notably once air-based tourism starts. UMTS can also be a fast, reliable and cost-efficient alternative for the copper-based landline network in St Helena’s more remote settlements, eliminating the costs of maintaining parts of the landline network. A further advantage of UMTS is that it can cover a range of approximately 100km (using the 900MHz frequency band), while GSM is limited to 35km, and so it can generate more revenue from maritime users while also providing redundant emergency communications deeper into the sea.

With this move towards 3G, Sure accepts the continued criticism raised by A Human Right over the outdated cellular technology that was planned to be deployed to the island, incapable to include the island in what is called the “mobile revolution” and praised as “the biggest tech shift in years”.

Even more remarkable is the fact that in the same press release, Sure refers to a roadmap towards a possible move to the latest, even faster radio access technology called LTE (also known as “4G”), “although this will be heavily dependent on the availability of cost effective [efficient] international capacity”, as Sure’s CEO Hensil O’Bey explains. Since such cost efficient international capacity can only be provided by a link to a fibre optic submarine cable, Sure appears to finally support efforts to connect St Helena to the planned South Atlantic Express cable (SAEx) which is set to link Cape Town in South Africa with Fortaleza in Northern Brazil straight across the South Atlantic Ocean.

Although there has been no news on the progress of the South Atlantic Express Cable since late 2013 when South Atlantic Express Cable Ltd. took over planning for the project from eFive Telecoms Ltd., the now liquidated special purpose vehicle responsible for the initial feasibility studies, we are informed that efforts continue to bring the project to fruition. Further news are expected by end of the year.

Meanwhile we applaud these positive developments concerning St Helena’s cellular network which are obviously driven by a fortunate coincidence for the people of St Helena.

Original press release by Sure South Atlantic Ltd from 14 August 2014:

Press Release: Mobile Service - St Helena

The planned rollout of a mobile network in St Helena in 2014 has been creating much excitement, most recently when a tower construction engineer visited the Island to provide the necessary training to the Sure South Atlantic Ltd (“SURE”) Networks team in Health and Safety on installing the Mobile Towers at various sites.

Unfortunately we need to inform the people of St Helena that there will be a delay to SURE’s mobile launch date and we will not be able to launch mobile services in 2014. This delay is for reasons entirely beyond our control: Altobridge, the mobile network supplier we had selected because it specialises in small mobile network deployments in remote areas (and who we use in the Falkland Islands and Diego Garcia) was placed into receivership on the 30 May 2014 and has now ceased trading. Given that SURE cannot continue with Altobridge we have been urgently considering other supplier options in the hope that a 2014 launch could still be achieved. Unfortunately, initial discussions with potential suppliers indicate that, despite our best efforts, this will not be possible.

Hensil O’Bey, Chief Executive SURE St Helena said, “We were looking forward with pride to the launch of Mobile Services, both as members of the SURE team and as residents of St Helena. Whilst it is disappointing that we will not be able to launch in 2014, in the medium to long term we believe that the change in supplier will in fact be of greater benefit to St Helena. For example, all the alternative suppliers we are considering will be able to offer St Helena 3G mobile services immediately (rather than the 2G services that Altobridge would have offered), delivering a faster and richer mobile data experience from the start. Additionally, we will have a clearer roadmap towards a possible move to LTE/4G mobile services, although this will be heavily dependent on the availability of cost effective international capacity.

The procurement process required to appoint a new supplier is now well underway and we are hopeful of a launch by June 2015. We should be able to confirm this timeframe by the end of September. In the meantime, we are continuing with enabling works including the installation of high speed fibre and microwave radio networks; the construction of towers at strategic sites, and upgrades to the telephone exchange. Please rest assured that we are doing everything we possibly can to minimise the delays to the launch date of our Mobile Services in St Helena.

Hensil O’Bey, Chief Executive
Sure, PO Box 2, Jamestown, St Helena Island, STHL 1ZZ, T +290 22222, www.sure.co.sh

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.