St. Helena, a British Island – capitalizing on remoteness to get connected

Measured by distance from the next inhabited place, St. Helena ranks among the remotest islands in the world. Situated in the middle of the South Atlantic between Brazil and Angola, it used to be a strategic outpost of the British Empire best known as Napoleon’s last exile. During the Age of Sail hundreds of ships called every year at St. Helena to take in vital supplies on their long journey to Africa and Asia. But with the introduction of steamboats and the opening of the Suez Canal, the small island quickly lost its relevance during the 19th century.

Today St. Helena still remains a British overseas territory and home to 4,500 people who in lack of economic prospects are totally dependent on financial aids from the UK and the EU. Many leave the island for study and work purposes and particularly the young often do not come back.

After 50 years of considerations, in November 2011 the UK government announced the construction of an airport on St. Helena worth $400 million with the intent to end the island’s isolation, enable tourism and thus pave the way to self-sufficiency. Until the airport ultimately opened in October 2017, the island’s only link to the outside world was the last Royal Mail Ship, the RMS St. Helena, sailing five days from Cape Town once every three weeks. St. Helena’s Internet hasn’t been much faster, with a single satellite link of 50 Mbps shared by the entire island community.

The same week the airport was announced I became aware of the plans for the South Atlantic Express cable (SAEx) which, as I figured out, could conveniently connect St. Helena if its path from Cape Town to Fortaleza was shifted to the south, increasing total length only marginally. A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for such an isolated island community, I thought. In this day and age proper broadband connectivity is imperative to economic prosperity – especially in such a remote location and particularly in light of the economic development plan of attracting 30,000 higher spending visitors per year by “delivering island-wide world-class services and experiences”. Obviously when the next big hospital or university is thousands of miles away, broadband access brings countless improvements for healthcare and education.

Lord Balfe and Christian Frhr. von der Ropp in September 2015 at Westminster Palace

Out of pure curiosity I inquired with the St. Helena Government and SAEx whether it was considered to land the cable on the island. To my great surprise that was not the case.

Coincidentally, in late 2011 the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) was holding a consultation on the challenges for economic development in the British overseas territories as part of which I, in my submission, highlighted the need for better telecoms infrastructure and St. Helena’s unique opportunity to land a transatlantic submarine cable.

But even before an independent analysis of the FCO consultation was published three months later barely mentioning my proposal (“Internet access” was listed as the last item in a list of 41 issues), I decided to raise awareness for St. Helena’s cause in hopes that the UK government would quickly realize the opportunity and necessity of landing the SAEx cable.

Accordingly, in early January 2012 I started campaigning. I set up a website (www.connectsthelena.org), emailed a number of journalists as well as the members of the UK Overseas Territories All-Party Parliamentary Group and together with James Greenwood, a British teacher working on St. Helena at the time, we launched an e-petition in the UK asking the UK government to consider funding the branch from the SAEx cable.

St Helena Airport built on a cliff-top. Photo by Christian Frhr. von der Ropp

SAEx quickly signalled readiness to shift their cable’s route so it could be landed on St. Helena if costs would be covered. Within a few weeks, the BBC, WIRED, ZDNet and others reported and despite the e-petition falling massively short of the legal threshold of 100,000 signatures, the proposal still made it into parliament after two MPs tabled formal parliamentary questions in March and April 2012.

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