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Tiny Brit island stranded after £10m undersea fibre plea sunk

FCO snubs St Helena, anyone got some spare cash?

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Days after walking away from the ITU treaty on global communications, which asked nations to connect up their islands, the UK confirmed it will not readily stump up the cash to do just that.

The island in question is St Helena, a British territory smack bang in the middle of the South Atlantic Ocean. Its inhabitants need £10m to hook into some nearby undersea fibre after persuading the cable's operator to swing the transatlantic connection closer to the isle. The islanders appealed to Blighty's Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) to ask the government to consider adopting the ITU's resolution on improving islands' net connections regardless of the outcome of the treaty negotiations.

But the UK is already committed to building a runway on St Helena for £250m and spends £20m annually keeping the place solvent. The thought of handing over an eight-figure sum for an optic fibre cable did not impress* the FCO.

"The UK did not sign the revised International Telecommunication Regulations last week in Dubai, and has no intention of doing so in the future," the FCO stated in an email to The Register, providing its own emphasis when responding to a question about the island's connectivity campaigners.

"The five resolutions in the treaty are, in any case, non-binding even for states that sign up to it," added the FCO, which told The Reg it would not bankroll the cable project.

For those who have forgotten, this ITU treaty is the international communication systems treaty against which Google campaigned so fiercely. The web giant managed to convince much of the world that the ITU agreement was a genuine threat to the freedom of the internet - not that Google cared enough to actually join the ITU: it prefers to lobby quietly and sent along staff as part of the US government delegation.

That treaty was signed by more than half the planet's nations, but not the UK which dutifully followed the US out of negotiations.

The high-speed South Atlantic Express fibre cable will run from Cape Town in South Africa to Fortaleza in Brazil. It was going to lie north of St Helena until campaigners convinced eFive Telecoms to route the connection further south. Now the islanders need someone to pay £10m or so to bridge the connection from a junction box on the cable to the island - that someone being the UK government and by extension its taxpayers.

There are about 4,200 people living on St Helena, which is too remote for all but the largest of aircraft and thus needs a decent airport if it's going to develop some tourism and reduce its reliance on a government subsidy. That's the plan that publicly justifies the expense of the airport, but with only 10Mb/sec of satellite connectivity to the internet (at best) shared between the whole population, tourists will really be able to get away from it all.

The fact that St Helena is on route to The Falklands is probably equally important to the airport plan. It's still 3,800 miles (6,200km) from the disputed islands, but that's a good deal closer than the UK. Having a decent airport there won't do any harm to our military aspirations, which won't be helped at all by fitting a 155Mbps internet connection even if it is a good deal cheaper. ®

Bootnote

* It's been pointed out to us that all is not necessarily lost for St Helena as funding may yet appear from the UK government's Department for International Development, according to the island's internet campaigners. However, the policy at the FCO remains that "telecommunications for St Helena is the responsibility of the St Helena Government" even if airports aren't - and no funds from the FCO will be forthcoming.

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