St Helena wants cable, not wireless, for net access

St Helena wants cable, not wireless, for net access

Summary: St Helena is more pub quiz answer than reality to most people. A speck of land in the South Atlantic midway between Africa and South America, it's Britain's second oldest extant colony after Bermuda and home to around 4000 people and one bishop.

TOPICS: Emerging Tech

St Helena is more pub quiz answer than reality to most people. A speck of land in the South Atlantic midway between Africa and South America, it's Britain's second oldest extant colony after Bermuda and home to around 4000 people and one bishop. With no airport and one scheduled mail boat visit every couple of weeks, it's about as isolated as you can get this side of the Sea of Tranquility. It's got a mild climate, lots of history - it was home to Napoleon for a while, following one of our little tiffs with the French - and a distillery that makes Tungi Spirit from prickly pears.

What it doesn't have is an economy. Heavily dependent on UK and European aid and without much by way of exports or tourism, there's not much to keep people on the island. A big factor in that, in this digital age, is the lack of decent internet. A single 10Mbps satellite channel is shared between the entire population, providing a dribble of bits for, on average, a third of the user's salary. International phone calls are £1/minute and, like the internet connectivity, unreliable. Every so often, the satellite's in line with the sun and loses the link — it's also sensitive to solar flares.

St Helena would very much like a fibre connection. You can't blame it. Any hope of self-sufficiency must include a decent slab of connectivity: it may get an airport by 2015, but without broadband why would anyone come? There's an opportunity to get the island wired this year, with the new South Atlantic Express (SAex) cable being laid between South Africa, Angola and Brazil. Currently, all African-American traffic goes via Europe with concomitent problems with latency and bandwidth: SAex is planned to carry 12.8 Tbps and thus be able to take over the lion's share of connectivity for decades. St Helena could tap into that cable and get as much internet as it liked.

Of course, it's not as simple as that. The cable is due to be routed hundreds of miles north of the island, primarily to reduce the length of the leg to Luanda, and landing it on St Helena would cost somewhere in the mid single-digit millions of pounds. The outfit behind SAex, eFive, has said it's happy to provide the link provided the money's forthcoming but that this cannot be commercially viable. Industrial sponsors or government aid are required.

And so, the Connect St Helena campaign has started — kicked off, rather delightfully, by Christian von der Ropp, a German IT consultant who's never actually been to the island. There's an e-petition to sign, which will get the subject debated in the UK Parliament if it reaches 100,000 signatures - it started on Monday and has 28 sign-ups so far. Early days. There's the obligatory Twitter account to follow.

The special bottling of Tungi Spirit cannot be far away. We await developments with interest.

Topic: Emerging Tech

Rupert Goodwins

About Rupert Goodwins

Rupert started off as a nerdy lad expecting to be an electronics engineer, but having tried it for a while discovered that journalism was more fun. He ended up on PC Magazine in the early '90s, before that evolved into ZDNet UK - and Rupert evolved with them into an online journalist.

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  • Interestingly the airport that will be build on St Helena for £250 million funded by UK taxpayers will only be reachable with Boeing 737-700 aircraft or smaller which are unavailable in Southern Africa and even if such aircraft could be obtained, it couldn't make the planned route from Cape Town with more than two thirds of its passenger capacity because of the high fuel reserves required on such long ETOPS flight. The resulting high ticket prices will make it very hard to establish tourism. Landing this cable at St Helena would provide a significantly better cost-benefit ratio in terms of economic prospects.
  • Interesting about the 3-700s and ETOPS (which I always remember as Engines Turn Or Passengers Swim). Is there an analogous island in the Pacific?

    (Looking at the fares from Brize to Ascension, thence to St Helena, it's actually quite tempting to get there before the airport's built...)
  • I haven't looked closely into the Pacific region but St Helena's special problem besides the short runway is the distance to the next alternate aerodrome, for which every inbound aircraft must carry enough fuels reserves. Ascension island would be the closest alternative airfield but the USAF doesn't want to permit civilian air traffic and even if they did Wideawake airfield is not ICAO-compliant (apron, lighting and obstacle-free zone require improvement for millions) and the island lacks accomodation for an unexpected load of passengers. That leaves Angolan and Namibian airports as the closest diversion destinations in case of St Helena being closed for whatever reason. As a result flights from South Africa need fuel for >3000nm, which reduces payload capacity on such small airplanes significantly. No matter if you operate half empty flights or if you refuel at Walvis Bay, Namibia high ticket prices are unavoidable. The most economic solution would be to establish an airlink to Luanda, Angola as this is the closest international airport with connection flights to Europe and as afaik TAAG Angola Airlines is the only airline in Southern Africa who owns few 737-700s. But given Angola's political instability this wouldn't be a good solution either.
    The development plan for St Helena proposes 30,000 tourists to come yearly once the airport opens. At the same time the plan projects one weekly flight to a South African hub. This implies you either have one weekly flight carrying 577 passengers or - given the limitation of aircraft types and seat capacity - 300 flights per year with a B737-700. Both quite unrealistic assumptions, especially as St Helena will compete with destinations like Mauritius which has way better infrastructure (including broadband internet), beaches, high-class hotels and is reachable way cheaper from Europe as well as from South Africa.
    I think the undisversified as well as illusionary development plan is neither in Saints' nor in UK and EU taxpayers' interest. Landing the SAex cable would be a cheap way to disversify economic development opportunities besides providing many other benefits in daily life.
  • Good points - I looked up the airport project, and it is a peculiar thing with a peculiar history and some peculiar decisions. Follow the money, I guess: lots of people will make lots of it, regardless of whether the darn thing makes sense. It's not even as if it adds much to area security, although I suppose it would have some role if the FI kick off again.

    In terms of useful investment, it's hard to argue against the SAex landing, assuming that the political will to maintain the island exists at all.