12 July 2019

St Helena Independent: Agreement close on St Helena link to Google's Equiano Cable?

originally published in the St Helena Independent, Vol. XIV, Issue 32, Friday 12th July 2019, p.2

Agreement close on St Helena link to Google's Equiano Cable?

A new route to achieving a connection to the global fibre-optic cable network appears to be moving fast to completion. The Independent reported last week that Google officially announced the go-ahead for their Equiano cable from Portugal to Cape Town. The cable has several branching points built into it; one is located as the cable passes about midway between St Helena and Angola. Google made their announcement twelve days ago. Nine days ago SHG's Financial Secretary and Chief Economist said they felt confident and comfortable arrangements for the cable connection would be finalised soon.

Six days ago, (last Saturday) both the Financial Secretary and the Head of IT, Jerry Roberts, flew overseas; Dax Richards was travelling on business but the purpose of that business has never been officially announced. Frequent enquiries asking where they have gone and what they are doing resulted in one short and probably rushed email from the Financial Secretary. Dax said, "I have had a very productive week so far, of course I can't discuss the details but I think by just having a presence at this event has made a lot of people in the industry sit up and take notice. There are other potential future options for increasing economic activity on the Island once a cable is landed as you know, and we should explore these in more detail over the coming months. Happy to discuss when I get back."

The 'event' mentioned but not explained by Dax is very probably the meeting in Marseille. 8-10 July where more than 300 professionals in submarine cable connections representing 120 companies from 35 plus countries in Europe, Middle East and Africa got together to discuss what is described as "As bandwidth demands grow, rumours of new projects circulate and the industry thrives, it is paramount that those spearheading the current subsea cable boom unite to converse with new business partners, as well as debate new technologies changing the face of legacy networks and new high-capacity systems." Google was one of the 120 companies represented at the Marseille meeting. From the sequence of known events, together with persistent rumours, hopes are high that a deal with Google has been finalised and the signing of contracts is now a formality.

Google, like Facebook, Microsoft and others constantly require global data links with ever more and ever higher capacity. As the demand increases from users of laptops, tablets, mobile phones and all else for texting, social media and Skype/Facetime so does the need for more cables. The communications giants such as Google and Facebook prefer to have their own cables instead of sharing a cable laid by a telecom provider. It is estimated that more than 80% of all the data sent through transatlantic cables is from companies such as Google and Facebook.

Apart from giving the go-ahead for the Equiano cable from Portugal to Cape Town, Google have plans for three more cables in the Atlantic Ocean in addition to the three which are already laid and operating. New technology, higher capacity, and ever-increasing data transmission speeds go hand-in-hand with more cables. The capacity and capability of the Equiano cable alone is thought to double the existing data transmission capacity of all existing submarine cable connections to the African continent.

If St Helena can secure a branch from the Equiano cable, the cable connection to St Helena would not require anything like the capacity of the main cable. It is estimated that with just a single fibre pair (there are 16 fibre pairs in the main cable) the available bandwidth from the current St Helena satellite connection would increase by a staggering 400,000 times. St Helena will never use all of the increased capacity which means the spare capacity can be sold to St Helena ground station users to the benefit of our economic development. Ground stations provide the link between satellites and fibre-optic cables.

Another important part of the whole package is the 21.5 million euros (£19.2million) provided from European Union funds and how far that funding will go if the Equiano cable connection becomes a reality. With the original plan to connect with the SAEx cable the distance to the connection on the main cable was 60km. The branching point on the Equiano cable as planned is estimated to be more than 1,000km from St Helena. The cable will be about 20 times longer and the cost of the St Helena connection must be more than originally anticipated. One of the many considerations might be that Google plans to link the Equiano cable to their existing cable already laid along the Brazilian coastline. Such a connection would complete the loop and link all the North and South Atlantic cables. Completing the loop means Google would be able to send data in both directions and avoid a particular segment which is temporarily malfunctioning.

It is good that Dax says he is "happy to talk", the Independent will have a long list of questions for him when he returns tomorrow.

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.