26 October 2014

St Helena’s fibre link at risk after other trans-South Atlantic cable takes first-mover advantage

enlarge map    based on map published by DalGobboM on Wikimedia Commons
While SimplCom South Africa (Pty) Ltd, the company now leading the South Atlantic Express (SAEx) cable project, is still in the process of securing funding for its proposed cable linking South Africa to Northern Brazil with a potential branch to St Helena, another company, Angola Cables, a consortium of Angolan carriers, has now received funding for its competing project called the South Atlantic Cable System (SACS) linking Angola with Northern Brazil.
This comes after Angola Cables’ Brazilian partner, Telebras, dropped out of the project in February 2014 leading to the intervention of the Angolan government which last week announced through a presidential order that it would guarantee to Angolan banks for $260 million in bank loans earmarked for the trans-South Atlantic cable.
The SACS, which is expected to be ready for service by end of 2016, is part of a large-scale plan to turn Angola into a regional Internet hub for the western African coast. This plan also includes establishing an open Internet Exchange in Angola named “Angonix”, which will enter service before end of 2014, and laying a terrestrial fibre optic cable to the African east coast in order to interconnect with onward submarine cables in the Indian Ocean. Some market observers see South Africa’s role as regional Internet hub for Southern Africa seriously challenged by these developments.

In November 2011 the CEO of eFive Telecoms (Pty) Ltd, the liquidated entity responsible for the early feasibility works on the SAEx and now succeeded by SimplCom SA, explained that there was no demand for a second cable in the South Atlantic Ocean and that having the first-mover advantage would be vital for the SAEx to materialize. Now that the SACS will take the first-mover advantage industry experts believe that viability of the SAEx project is severely impacted unless the South African government follows their Angolan counterpart’s example and supports the SAEx in order to preserve the country’s role as a regional Internet hub which has been attracting many foreign IT companies.

Despite a branch from the SACS to St Helena would involve a multiple of the costs of a branch from the SAEx (an estimated $40-50 million vs. $10-15 million) due to the substantially larger distance of approximately 900km from the SACS’ route, A Human Right has approached Angola Cables’ CEO Antonio Nunes to discuss a potential underwater branching unit supporting a spur to St Helena which he categorically ruled out due to what he called “strategic concerns”. The subtext of his refusal, of course, is that in the wake of Edward Snowden's revelations of mass surveillance especially on submarine cables, there are concerns of installing a branch to St Helena which could potentially be used for spying activities.

In consequence, should the SAEx indeed not materialize, St Helena will be forced to continue to rely on satellite-based Internet connectivity which in such remote location suffers from bandwidth limitations. A recent satellite system that is enjoying great popularity among remote communities and especially among small island states due to its improved performance is O3b, a constellation of currently eight medium-earth orbit satellites circling Earth at a significantly lower altitude than traditional geostationary satellites (8,000km vs. 36,000km) which increases bandwidth while reducing latency from some 600ms to 120ms. However even a comparably slow link through O3b providing 150Mbps on the downlink and 50Mbps on the uplink would involve enormous costs of more than $2 million per year while bandwidth upgradability would be limited to less than 1,000Mbps. In comparison the planned submarine cable spur from the SAEx would provide a bandwidth of at least 100,000Mbps while imposing lower whole-life costs during the 25+ years life cycle of the submarine cable.

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.