Information in isolation: the arrival of high speed internet in a very remote country - Andrew Whitworth & Gareth Drabble
Andrew Whitworth, Manchester Institute of Education
Gareth Drabble, Prince Andrew School, St Helena
Information in isolation: the arrival of high
speed internet in a very remote country
A presentation at LILAC, April 2022
All images in this presentation are (c) Andrew Whitworth 2022.
St Helena is a British Overseas
Territory — an island of 47 sq. km
lying 2,000km from the nearest
mainland (West Africa).
British possession since 1659, first controlled by the East India
Company, then since 1834 as a colony.
It’s probably still best known as the
place where Napoleon was exiled
after Waterloo, and died in 1821
(his tomb is pictured)
Part of the capital, Jamestown
Jonathan, the world’s oldest
living land animal whose age
is known (he is at least 189)
The island has not always been behind the
times with information — indeed, its public
library is the oldest in the Southern Hemisphere.
It has two radio stations,
including the independent
Saint FM (director Tammy
On the other hand, some
media arrived on the island
Currently the 4,500 inhabitants depend on a single
satellite uplink for all external communications.
But the island is about to be connected
to the Equiano undersea cable — currently
scheduled for early 2023
This is being supported by a €21m grant from the European Development Fund. (Which was
approved prior to January 2020 — thankfully.)
The business case for this grant stressed the
cable’s desired positive impacts on
* Business and economic development.
Note also the island’s status as the greatest
store of biodiversity in territories administered by
the UK, and how better mobile internet access
could help sustain this.
The Peaks National Park
“Bridging the digital divide” study
ICT teacher at the island’s secondary school
Studied on the MA: DTCE at Manchester in 2020-21
(unfortunately for him)
We collaborated on a successful bid for funding
to the St Helena Research Institute’s
“Bridging the digital divide” competition.
“Bridging the digital divide” study
We are undertaking a longitudinal study of the impact of this change on the island, with
pre- and post-cable phases.
Pilot study (GD’s MA dissertation): June 2021
Main pre-cable phase: Drew visited in November 2021
Due to delays the cable is not scheduled to be activated until early 2023. After that, two
more visits are planned:
* immediately post-cable
* around one year post-cable
(10 days’ quarantine were lived out here…
it could have been worse)
Method 1): Interviews with key stakeholders
* Chief Mental Health Nurse
* Chief of Police
* Deputy Head of Primary School
* Director of the independent radio station
* Head of Education, Skills and Employment Portfolio (St Helena Government)
* Head of Lifelong Learning (SHG)
* Head of the St Helena Research Institute
* Head of Sustainable Development Portfolio (SHG)
* IT Section manager and Chief Digital Officer (SHG)
* Minister of Treasury, Infrastructure and Sustainable Development (SHG)
* Principal of Secondary School
(Note that the island’s librarian was approached to be interviewed, but turned us down)
Method 2): Ketso mapping sessions
How do different groups on the island
map their information landscape, pre-
• Primary school children
• Secondary school children
• Trainee teachers
• Business people [pictured]
Health sector workers — STILL TO DO
(No time for the details today, but see chapter 5
of Whitworth (2020))
Method 3): Scholarly investigation of the island’s history, particularly on how it has
been integrated in the past into flows of resources and information (in and out)
Penal colony, place of exile
Cash crop exploitation, invasive species
Source of labour (off-island)
Also, analysis of the island’s “Digital Strategy” and other relevant
Limitations of the present situation
Slow and expensive. Downloads strictly controlled,
even for SHG.
Limits to collaboration. When one person is using
videoconferencing at the college (e.g. doing an exam)
no one else at the college can be.
Limited mobility. Have to be at a desk to get info. No info spontaneously available ‘in the field’.
No specialists on the island — and limited ability to access their expertise.
Broader economic limitations — no connection to the international banking network (hence, no ATMs,
Visa card transactions, etc.)
There are also political/economic factors that must be accounted for.
We have people here making such small salaries, so how can Sure make £1.1m each year
and take that off the island?
One can’t explain the kind of profits that Sure… make, and we see very little of it come
back into the island. They have provided employment and training activities, yes, but it’s
set up in the Channel Islands and are so far removed from people acting on the ground.
The people who are here, the front-of-house people like the CEO, they do get hate mail,
the young girls who are front of desk, people get aggressive with them — they are the
face of the company while the company shelters in the Channel Islands.
The ISP, Sure, have a monopoly over all communications (internet, phone, TV): the company is based in
the Channel Islands and ultimately owned by the Bahraini royal family.
(This amounts to about £250 for every Saint, annually)
The information resources of the island are being exploited for profit, just as the natural and human
resources have been in the past.
Better access to online learning, at all levels
Attractiveness to ‘digital nomads’, also researchers
(research is currently the second biggest contributor
to the island economy, after the UK Government)
Opportunities to build new careers on-island
Making St Helena more informationally ‘visible’…. new ways of getting their voice heard
(cf. Cees Hamelink, 1976)
we feel we are privileged to get this money from the EU, the idea that it changes
the landscape…. the [UK-funded] airport was to change our economic fortunes,
but the cable comes in a different way, not only talking about the economic
benefits but social inclusion, it has community values, reaching areas where you
haven’t been able to go before. The airport is exclusive, somewhat — maybe you
could get to go on a plane, or certain businesses like hotels would benefit. The
cable is seen as much more community-oriented I would say.
Risks and concerns (the IL angle)
we are starting to get some of the more usual online scams, ‘I’ve got this money and need
your bank account details’ — the naivety of the population…. we have had a number of
individuals taken in by romance scams, ‘I love you but need the money to get to you’.
There isn’t the awareness in the community of these types of scam, people are trusting
here, and justifiably so. Some report this as a crime, but by the time they realised they
have been scammed, they are embarrassed and don’t instinctively come forward.
Isolation has both benefits and challenges. The benefits of isolation are that we haven’t
had to deal with digital issues for the last 20-25 years, the hazard is that we have to deal
with them now in one go. If we’re not ready the cable could bring harm along with the
My major concern is around digital literacy for both the kids and adults on the island. There is
kind of a laid back attitude when it comes to internet safety, and you know, educating people
around the dos and dont’s. A lot of people think that because this is St Helena, that SARS
didn’t reach us and so and so didn’t reach us, that it will be the same for this. My concern is
around literacy, are people understanding what it means to have better access to the digital
world, for keeping themselves safe?
I guess I’m a bit concerned, as well, how or whether this will affect people financially. There’s a
lot of families on the island that don’t have internet access, I don’t know if the bigger bandwidth
means it’s going to be higher cost, or the cost will come down so that more people can access it
— I know that’s what they said, but it’s whether or not that does happen.
I found the children in the schools to be quite self-aware
about their current Internet use (for better or worse).
Digital and information literacy is clearly an area that the St Helenian community as a whole
needs to develop…
Not just in the formal educational arena of the schools and college,
but more informally, in the community…
However, interviewees expressed a general concern that the SHG was lagging behind on instituting
the educational programmes required. There was a general sense of relief about the delay to activation,
The aim is to help the community develop these educational programmes in the post-cable visits, as
well as just gathering more data.
Conclusion The project is an excellent opportunity to develop knowledge
about digital and information practices within this community…
…as well as study the impact of the shift to broadband in a
relatively self-contained and controlled setting.
What will be the impact of St Helena’s encounter with new
information practices, different discursive maps?
We don’t know yet but it will be very interesting to find out…
The island’s football pitch, Francis Plain
The utterly fearsome Jacob’s Ladder