Bridging the Informational Divide: High-Speed Broadband Comes to St Helena

A Manchester student is set to study the impact of the arrival of high-speed broadband on one of the most remote islands in the world.

St Helena is probably best known as the place where French Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte was exiled in 1815 after his defeat at the Battle of Waterloo. With a population of around 4500 people, the UK Overseas Territory lies in the middle of the South Atlantic Ocean, midway between Africa and South America.

Its isolated inhabitants – which were only linked to the outside world by a Royal Mail ship until commercial air services started in 2017 – currently rely on satellite internet access.

However, the Google Equiano undersea communications cable is currently being constructed, which will start providing high-speed broadband to the island from 2022. Funded by the European Development Fund, it is hoped that the vast increase in bandwidth will decrease the need for overseas health referrals (which involve transferring patients 2000 miles to South Africa), increase access to educational opportunities, and boost tourism and business.

Gareth Drabble – a teacher at the island’s secondary school who won a Chevening Scholarship to come to Manchester to study on the MA: Digital Technologies, Communication and Education course – and his supervisor Dr Drew Whitworth of the Manchester Institute of Education won funding from the St Helena Research Institute to study the impact of broadband’s arrival on the island and its inhabitants.

They will help residents – whether in education, business, health or administration – learn about the impact of this change and adapt to it. The work will use the ‘mapping’ technique developed by Drew in his 2020 book Mapping Information Landscapes: New methods for exploring the development and teaching of information literacy.

The St. Helenian landscape of information is currently limited, but from next year will expand enormously, and residents will find it increasingly important to have developed their information literacy, and navigate their way around it safely and productively. The project is an ideal opportunity to research the impact of this significant change on how a small community uses the online world, and what happens to its learning, health and business when it gains access to broadband.

A pilot study will take place in June, to prepare for the ‘pre-cable’ visit which is planned for November. Drew and Gareth will work with the partners to map their current information landscapes via interactive workshops and the gathering of other data. The ‘post-cable’ visit will then take place around June 2022, after the cable’s activation. As well as the same data gathering, the team will run public educational workshops and release learning materials and guides for the various sectors of island life.

“This is an excellent opportunity to research this community before and after this huge moment of change,” said Drew. “It’s small and very self-contained, which controls a lot of variables – something any researcher is happy to experience.”

“I am extremely pleased that our proposal was awarded first prize in the Bridging the Digital Divide Research Competition,” said Gareth. “This research will be done at a significant period in St Helena’s history and her socio-economic development.”

“We are delighted to be able to award Gareth and Drew funding to support their research to help the island to interpret the changes and develop adaptive strategies to realise the opportunities that significantly increased broadband through the fibre optic cable can have on people, how we live, learn, manage health and conduct business,” said Dr Rebecca Cairns-Wicks, Coordinator of the St Helena Research Institute. “It is also exciting to welcome Gareth back to complete his studies and conduct this exciting research project. As an islander and teacher, Gareth is in a unique position to bring his experiences to the study and apply the knowledge gained”.

“We were pleased to fund this competition, and the research will help us to evaluate the impact of the significant investment in St Helena’s connectivity, providing evidence to the European Union on value for money,” said Nicole Shamier, the Chief Economist of St Helena’s Fibre Optic Cable Board, who is also a University of Manchester alumna. “With the cable being lit in 2022, we expect improvements in speeds, price and service offering. St Helena is already an incredible place to be – one of the safest places on earth, boasting a pristine marine and terrestrial environment, and some of the world’s friendliest people. Better connectivity will improve the island’s attraction as a place to live, work and visit for remote workers, researchers and holidaymakers alike.”