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St. Helena lobbying for piece of SAex cable

January 20, 2012 • Mobile and Telecoms, Top Stories

Even in this highly-connected world, there are still some parts on the globe which are struggling to stay connected to the internet – if at all. Take the little island of St. Helena as an example. The island in the South Atlantic (about 2 000 kilometres from the Angolan coast) is inhabited by just over 4 000 people, who all share one dreary internet connection.

St. Helena, about 2 000 kilometres from the Angolan/Namibian coast (image: NASA)

That might not seem like such a big deal, but the single line supporting the whole island is a satellite link of 10 MBit/s. While it falls under the British as an Overseas Territory, the  UK has an average speed of 5.2 MBit/s for a single UK household.

But help for the tiny island might be on the way – kind of. With the construction of the South Atlantic Express (SAex), an undersea broadband cable that will link South Africa to Brazil, St. Helena might just be able to get access to a portion of the cable.

A lobby group called Connect St. Helena! was formed to highlight the plight of Helenians, as the initial planning of the cables was to by-pass the island – leaving them once again with a missed opportunity to access broadband.

While the group has been furiously trying to persuade the parties involved, especially eFive Telecoms (who owns the cable) to shift the cable so that it reaches St. Helena, the group got word that there are signals for readiness to land the cable at St Helena.

With the initial battle won, the island now needs funding in order to make this dream a reality. “After eFive have signalled readiness to connect St Helena, our priority has now changed to obtaining the required funding in the mid single-digit million range (British pounds) which we hope to be able to get largely from the UK government, but without sponsors in the industry this project seems to be impossible,” Christian von der Ropp from Connect St. Helena told IT News Africa.

“Our aim is not only to connect St Helena to the SAex cable but also to provide affordable internet access to the people, which in such a tiny and relatively poor market, would be impossible if you have a profit-oriented monopolist,” he added.

Although the new cable will hugely benefit South Africa, the majority of the funding is now in the hands of the British government.

“It is up to UK citizens to ask their government to support the project. Also the European Union which has since been supporting infrastructure projects on the island through their Economic Development Fund will hopefully help St Helena.
So we also address EU citizens to support us by asking their national government to bring up our project in the Council of Ministers. Nevertheless we also hope to find sponsors in the telecommunication industry who would support us by giving St Helena a discount on construction costs and on the capacity that has to be leased on the South Atlantic Express cable.”

St. Helena has never had such an opportunity and it is unlikely that another one will ever arise. “Also there hasn’t been any game-changing alternative based on satellite technology. Allthough more and more modern Ka band satellites like YahSat 1A and 1B (the latter will be serving Southern Africa) are being launched which, due to their small spotbeams and frequency re-use principle, provide very high bandwidth at comparably low costs, unfortunately none will cover St Helena.”

Although chances are good that the cable will land in St. Helena (if the project gets the right funding), there is also the possibility that it might not, something which van der Ropp says will be damaging to the island’s economy.

“If the SAex doesn’t come to St Helena the only alternative would be a faster satellite connection, which however will suffer from many of the current problems like the inferior reliability, high latency and in any case, bandwidth will remain very limited. Even if a future Ka band satellite were to be redesigned to have one spot beam covering St Helena, we think the cost-benefit-ratio would be worse compared to the cable and we are not aware of another Ka band satellite for the region.”

Broadband connectivity is vital to the island – not only from an economic standpoint, “Broadband will change the quality of life dramatically. Children could get a better education through e-learning, they could acquire better computer skills and may even be able to earn a university degree by distance learning without having to leave the island permanently,” von der Ropp stressed.

If the moving of the cable and the subsequent landing on St. Helena doesn’t get funding, “this unique chance will be missed and St Helena will be left without proper broadband internet for at least another twenty years.”

For more information on Connect St. Helena! visit www.connectsthelena.org

Charlie Fripp – Acting online editor


  • The UK Government provides very little to the UK as regards securing proper broadband for the UK. It is all talk and very little action. I do hope they can stop shuffling papers and providing empty promises to deliver something for St Helena. At the same time start providing something for many areas of UK that are as neglected as St Helena broadband wise.

  • With the roll-out of LTE/4G wireless networks in the 800MHz band (so-called "digital dividend") the UK will soon get nationwide broadband. For St Helena however this cable will remain the only opportunity for broadband for decades. Also think of all the problems of living 2000km away from the next larger hospital, library, university etc. and their very weak economy. Connecting them to this cable will improve every aspect of life significantly!
    Latest media report (see today's St Helena Independent) reveal that St Helena's future airport due to its short runway will possibly only be reachable with aircraft types that are unavailable in Africa. Thus their plans for tourism may fail allthough the UK will spend £ 250m for this unreachable airport.
    This cable is probably their only chance for some economic prospects.

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