24 July 2012

Update following closure of our e-petition and recent developments

After six months, our e-petition in the United Kingdom closed yesterday with only 652 signatures. However after Andrew Rosindell, Conservative MP for Romford and chairman of the UK's All-Party Parliamentary Group on the British Overseas Territories, brought our cause into Parliament back in March by submitting parliamentary questions, our goal of raising awareness in Her Majesty's Government was successful and the e-petition since had more of a symbolic character. As a result of Mr Rosindell's efforts, the UK Department for International Development (DfID) stated it would consider funding a branch of the South Atlantic Express cable (SAex) to St Helena, if a full economic assessment indicates sufficient economic and social benefits for the island, and costs for the project appear appropriate. Evidently the St Helena Government has also been showing great interest in connecting the island to the planned superfast submarine cable.

Last week Dr. Rosalind Thomas, CEO of eFive Telecoms, confirmed that planning for the South Atlantic Express cable, including a branch to St Helena, is well advanced and that her company would soon enter negotiations with the St Helena Government. According to current plans a so-called "optical add/drop multiplexer" (basicly a distributor) installed underwater on the SAex cable at its closest point to St Helena would pickup a so-called "wavelength carrier" (a data-carrying light ray travelling through the optical fibre cable at a certain wavelength) with a capacity of 100 GBit/s from the main cable and divert it to the branch to St Helena which would enable a link to either Fortaleza (Brazil) or Cape Town (South Africa) with a possible maximum bandwidth of 100 GBit/s (corresponds to 100'000 MBit/s) exceeding that of the current satellite link by a factor of 10,000. High leasing costs and St Helena's small user base, however, would initially require actual bandwidth to be articifically limited to the low three-digit range of MBit/s but would allow future upgrades at any time.

Yesterday the St Helena Government announced that a new ten-year communications contract has been signed with Cable & Wireless South Atlantic, St Helena's exclusive provider of telecommunications. It comprises continuously decreasing Internet tariffs for St Helenian consumers as well as a doubling of bandwidth for the current satellite link from 10 to 20 MBit/s. While we applaud these measures, we note that this increase in bandwidth is just a drop in the ocean that will hardly improve individual user experience, especially since increasing Internet use will absorb the speed improvement over time.

Meanwhile we were contacted by a UK-based satellite expert who proposed a fast satellite link for St Helena using the soon-to-be-launched O3b satellite network, the only high capacity satellite system that could provide coverage on St Helena in the medium-term. Costs for a 150 MBit/s link, which we consider adequate for current needs, would amount to £770,000 for the required ground station equipment and additionaly around £120,000 per month for the actual link. According to our calculations in the longterm this would exceed expected costs of an Internet link through the SAex cable by far and would also be technically inferior.

Despite intensive research we could not identify any alternative option to provide adequate bandwidth to St Helena. Modern High Throughput Satellites, which have significantly brought down costs for satellite-based Internet access across wide parts of the Earth's landmass during the last decade use narrowly-focused spot beams (geographic areas in the range of 100s of kilometers covered by a satellite antenna). Owing to St Helena's remoteness, it is not covered by existing High Throughput Satellites, such as the recently launched YahSat 1B, which has all its high capacity spot beams pointed towards Africa. Against this background, even if another High Throughput Satellite were to be launched - which would be years away from coming on stream - St Helena would need its own dedicated spot beam which would also involve costs of several million pounds.

This leaves a link to the SAex cable as the only feasible solution for St Helena's bandwidth constraint for years to come. Costs for landing the South Atlantic Express cable on St Helena are expected to range between £6 and £9 million. A final decision on the St Helena branch, which will very much depend on the outcome of negotiations between eFive Telecoms and the St Helena Government as well as on the amount of financial support from the DfID, is expected in the beginning of the 4th quarter.

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.