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.