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The remote British territory being dragged into the 21st century

One of the world's last unconnected corners is about to change forever
One of the world's last unconnected corners is about to change forever Credit: GETTY
A remote British territory is finally getting super-fast broadband. But could it detract from the feeling of being at the isolated end of the earth?

Saint Helena’s tiny capital, Jamestown, resembled a Cotswolds village in the grip of a July heatwave. Series 1 Landrovers baked in the late afternoon sun, and a cluster of exhausted construction workers supped frosty half pints of black and tan on the steps of The Standard pub. 

With its Anglican church, and more than 100 listed Georgian buildings, the remote settlement – some 2,500 miles east of Rio de Janeiro and 1,210 west of Namibia – displayed all the hallmarks of a twee British high street, but for one jarring exception: shoddy internet. As my laptop’s browser whirred with confusion, and my smartphone refreshed, then refreshed again, the sense of isolation grew, one buffering per cent at a time. 

Despite the downright lovely feeling of stepping into a slower-paced, long-gone Britain, Saint Helena’s rubbish Wi-Fi has become something of a running joke among residents and tourists alike. Service is patchy, download speeds pathetic – and you’ll pay 10 pence per minute to use it. 

“I think many visitors consider it all part of the charm,” I was told by 70-year-old Steve Biggs, owner of Farm Lodge Country House Hotel in the island’s misty highlands, as the dulcet tones of the BBC World Service crackled from an FM radio. “It’s not uncommon for us to receive Christmas cards in June and wonder if they’ve been sent early, or late. What’s the rush? We’re used to being disconnected here.”

If this digitally detoxed Shangri-La sounds like your escape from blue-lit gadgets and rolling 24-hour news, then get down to this 5-by-10 mile island quick, because all could be about to change. The government of this British Overseas Territory, where Napoleon was famously exiled, has announced that the Google Equiano subsea cable – a fibre-optic internet link between Africa and Europe – is on its way, and could make landfall as early as August 2021. 

Some older islanders are naturally wary of technological advancement. Mobile phones have been around for just a few years, television only arrived in the mid-Nineties and community radio remains sacrosanct. But for Saint Helena’s fledgling tourism industry, the cable’s imminent arrival marks a huge opportunity to put their niche destination on the map. 

High-speed internet could make landfall as early as August 2021 Credit: AFP

“I’ll finally be able to promote my product to a global audience,” said 35-year-old Aaron Legg, one of the island’s youngest guides, as we explored the volcanic outpost by 4x4. “The bad internet stops me from being on all the same platforms as everyone else. Internet is also just something tourists expect, wherever they are on the planet.” At the moment it can take a local tour operator 24 hours to upload a low-resolution video to Facebook or Twitter, while their competitors elsewhere on the planet can achieve the same feat in minutes. 

Diverting a major subsea cable to little Saint Helena is all part of the grand plan to market itself to the world, and represents another massive coup for the island’s tiny government. Its first airport opened just over two years ago, and from early December a second weekly flight will operate from Cape Town to supplement the existing Saturday departure from Johannesburg. 

“We’ve been exploring the option of a fibre-optic cable for many years now,” said financial secretary Dax Richards as we enjoyed a pot of English breakfast tea at the government’s seaside HQ. “The hope is to be able to provide significantly higher bandwidth, at a similar or lower cost. The potential in all sectors is huge.” 

Some older islanders are naturally wary of technological advancement Credit: AFP

Via the current sluggish internet, it can take the hospital up to 14 hours to send a single CT scan to doctors in South Africa, while online educational courses are clunky, costly and frustratingly slow. The cable will be paid for with pre-Brexit funding from the European Commission, but the UK government has ring-fenced the necessary £18.5 million in case the UK leaves without a deal.

Slowly, Saint Helena could become less dependent on the £30m it receives in financial aid each year from Britain, and it’s hoped the arrival of high-speed internet could stimulate e-commerce industries. This far-flung, English speaking island conveniently shares Greenwich Mean Time, so what’s to prevent British companies rerouting their tech support enquiries to call centres in Jamestown instead of Jaipur? 

But what about the unique feeling of “island time” – and the sensation of being detached from the rest of the fast-moving world? For visitors, especially, is that not the USP of somewhere like Saint Helena as opposed to New York or Paris? Could the arrival of high-speed internet take the shine off?

Personally, the lack of widespread Wi-Fi provided an initial shock, before quickly instilling calm. The fact that you have to pay for it also serves as a deterrent – tourists learn to log-in for a few minutes, check their emails, then go back to a low-tech existence of books, daydreams and conversations. 

It sounds pathetic, but in our super-connected, instantaneous modern world, sometimes you need an enforced break from technology in order to shock your senses and reassess the habits you’ve come to regard as normal. 

When the cable arrives in 2021, tourists will have a choice: use the internet as fervently as they do at home, or perhaps exercise a little restraint and embrace a bygone Britain, free of buzzes, bells and bleeps.