18 April 2019

St Helena Independent: Are We Getting a Fibre-Optic Cable or Not - The Latest...

proposed submarine cables in the South Atlantic
originally published in the St Helena Independent, Vol. XIV, issue 20, 18th April 2019, p.2

Cable link prospects in shifting sands

It has been 15 months since Dr. Rosalind Thomas of the SAEX submarine cable project visited St Helena and promised the cable to become operational in mid 2020. Since then it has become alarmingly quiet around the cable's progress. Although the European Union has provided £18 million for the 50km branch to St Helena the funding of the trunk cable between South Africa and Brazil is still in murky waters and as the required seabed survey has still not happened the commissioning date has already slipped at least by a year to 2021 if it materializes at all.

It has always been clear that St Helena cannot afford a dedicated cable to Africa or Latin America as the cost of such would run into the hundreds of millions. The only way to land a fibre optic cable on St Helena would be when another cable runs close to the island from where a short branch to the island could be forked off. Unfortunately the only other cable project to come close to the island, Seaborn Networks' SABR cable (South Africa-Brazil) has not made any progress either, leaving us in desperation. However, with both the SAEX and SABR proposed cable projects finding it difficult to turn ideas into reality, two other proposals for South Atlantic cable routes are emerging.

Last week the Wall Street Journal revealed that two of the world's largest Internet companies known for their multi-billion investments in submarine cables, Facebook and Google, are both working on two separate cable systems around the African continent. Facebook's “Simba”cable would encircle the African continent while Google's "Equiano" cable would be laid off Africa's western coast. Large telecom companies like MTN Group and Vodafone are believed to be partners in these cable projects that will connect European and Asian data centres to the growing African telecom markets where more and more people use Facebook's and Google's services.

While the exact route and distance from St Helena remains unclear, these cable projects by Facebook and Google do spark our hopes for a fibre optic connection should they just be coming close enough so we can afford the branch and – even more importantly – should these companies be willing to add a branch to St Helena. Both are committed to close the digital divide and have been promoting universal basic Internet service through various initiatives like Internet.org and Mark Zuckerberg personally has stated data was, like food or water, a human right. How serious they are about their promises or if these are rather lip services remains to be seen.

But equally important is the question what SHG is doing to potentially tap into these cables. The Facebook and Google projects will be on the agenda at an Exco meeting next Tuesday; exactly how SHG is reacting to these changing circumstances is not known and will probably not be known as the Exco discussion and any decisions is on the Closed Agenda. It can only be hoped the approach taken by SHG will include quick and confident decisions – that is quality decisions SHG intend to stick with followed up by action and purpose. This is vital because now there is competition from others that are using similar ideas to St Helena's for a cable connection.

Last week the Bermuda Government sent a high-profile delegation to the Sub-Optic 2019 conference in New Orleans, one of the two major submarine cable conferences globally, where they promoted Bermuda as a submarine cable hub where future cables could interconnect. Therefore a national subsea corridor initiative has been launched and legislation to create a dedicated seabed corridor will be tabled in the House of Assembly in the next few months with the aim of attracting new cable business and boosting connectivity. This comes a year after the Bermuda Government launched a space programme seeking to establish satellite earth stations which was promoted during the Space Symposium organised by the Space Foundation in Colorado in April 2018, just two months after St Helena Government launched the South Atlantic Earth Station website at www.earthstation.sh. Back then Bermuda's Minister of Transport and Regulatory Affairs, Walter Roban, explained: "Bermuda is to reach for the stars and create legislation to govern space exploration mission control centres on the island. We believe there could be legal, regulatory and administrative roles for Bermuda in supporting these new and emerging technologies and business models."

The alert reader will notice that both proposals – that of attracting satellite earth stations as well as the idea of landing and interconnecting submarine cables to form a hub – have also been proposed and promoted for St Helena already years ago by the campaigners behind the Connect St Helena initiative. Unfortunately unlike Bermuda SHG has since not attended any industry events nor created the required legislation or any economic incentives for either satellite ground stations or further submarine cable landings.

Asked on the matter, Christian von der Ropp, who launched the initiative more than seven years ago, explained: "The substantial interest from the space industry to operate ground stations on St Helena proves the islands potential as a gateway to orbit; and the fact that St Helena is politically stable, surrounded by very deep waters and far from busy marine routes makes it ideal for the concept of a mid-Ocean cable hub. Particularly when you lay cables to Africa it could make sense for cable developers to use St Helena as a geopolitically safe bridgehead. However I fear SHG could do much more to promote and to ready the island for these opportunities especially as St Helena's current regulatory regime with a monopolist telecoms provider acting as a gatekeeper is a serious barrier to any such ideas."

At least our fear of losing the financial aid for the cable from the European Union has been soothed recently when the Governor explained on Facebook, that SHG took receipt of 10 million Euros from the 1st Tranche of the EDF 11 programme and that in the event of a 'no deal'-Brexit the UK Government has agreed to meet the costs instead (also as grant funding).

Google's proposed Equiano cable is named after Olaudah Equiano. Born in 1745 in what is now south eastern Nigeria. Equiano and his sister were captured when he was 11 years old and sold to slave traders. In his autobiography Equiano describes his life as a slave in the service of a British Naval Officer and his years on slave ships as well as man o' war. He was an astute businessman and after purchasing his freedom in 1766 (for £5,400 at today's values) he travelled and continued to trade in fruit and glassware until settling in London in the 1780's. He assisted in the resettlement of Africans in Sierra Leone, married an English woman and was a leading figure in the anti-slavery movement. Olaudah Equiano's autobiography is entitled The Interesting Narrative, published in 1789 became a best seller available in several countries. Today Equiano's autobiography is published by Penguin Classics.

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.