New Opportunities Open for Montserrat as Fibre Optic Goes Live

Imagine Montserrat being the home of a relay station transmitting data from earth to satellites orbiting the earth. Or, volcanology students in New Zealand watching a scientist collect samples from the Soufriere Hills Volcano live as part of their daily class. The data is received in real time and they analyse and discuss what this means with primary school students in Canada. How about Montserrat as a source for fresh original content for the Diaspora and streaming services?

These ideas and more are within reach now that the Subsea Fibre optic cable has been lit up.

On Thursday, without the fanfare it rightfully deserves, officials formally announced the completion of the Montserrat Subsea Fibre Optic Project. The long-awaited connectivity for Montserrat via subsea cable is now a reality thanks to the Government of Montserrat’s collaboration with Southern Caribbean Fiber (SCF), a wholly-owned subsidiary of Digicel Group, and its subsidiary SCF Montserrat. (A celebration will be held once it is safe to do so.)

Under the project, funded by the UK funded Capital Investment Programme for Resilient Economic Growth (CIPREG), fibre optic cables, connecting Montserrat to Antigua and Guadeloupe have been successfully installed and are ready for operations.

Denzil West
Denzil West, Director of DITES and project manager.

Montserrat has been relying on microwaves linked between the island and Antigua for internet, cable, mobile  and landline services since the fibre optic cables were removed 25 years ago. This connectivity has been tested whenever there are storms, and amplified the island’s vulnerability to being completely cut off from the outside world.

With submarine fibre optic cables the backbone of the internet, and used for over 99% of all international voice and data traffic, the connection of a new subsea fibre cable system means the people of Montserrat can now look forward to reliable, fast and secure connection to the internet.

Valery Bijou, CEO of Southern Caribbean Fiber said, “SCF is very proud of achieving this milestone with the reinstatement of Montserrat on the map of submarine cables in the Caribbean and the resulting internet connectivity. I want to welcome Montserrat to an interconnected empowered future and to thank the Government for choosing SCF as their preferred partner in this important infrastructure development. It is also very rewarding to have reached the end of the journey on schedule, in spite of the challenges introduced by Covid-19.”

Martin Parlett
Martin Parlett, Head of Programme Management Office

Martin Parlett, Director of the Programme Management Office in the Ministry of Finance said the execution of the project despite the pandemic is a real life model for project and risk management. He said they will be using the learnings for the other projects to be rolled out in the months to come under CIPREG.

The focus now turns to finding the opportunities for using the fibre connectivity.

Denzil West, Director of DITES and the project manager for the SFCP shared that the Government of Montserrat is the first beneficiary of the strengthened network. They own the beach manhole and cable landing station as a result of its public capital investment. It will be receiving high speed broadband internet access at no additional costs. The new service delivers 1 Gigabits per second (Gbps), which is 25 times the amount it received from the local telcom provider. Previously, the government received 40 Megabits per second (Mbps) from FLOW at XCD 240,000 a year.

He said he did not believe the island would use up the expanded capacity that the fibre optic cable brings in our lifetime.  SCF has a 25-year Indefeasible Right of Use (IRU) agreement with GOM to commercialise the service. They have a 15-year operation and maintenance contract at no recurrent cost to the government. Digicel has already been connected to the system and Flow is expected to follow.

West explained that neither of the local telecom providers currently have the infrastructure to offer fibre to home. However, with a few minor tweaks residents can receive a much improved broadband service. He shared examples of a bandwidth test he conducted. A local telcom provider’s numbers were Download speed 16.74 Mbps and Upload 1.54 Mbps. The fibre connection offered a Download speed of 1026 Mbps and Upload of 595.27 Mbps.

He said we need to temper expectations as the island only has 2400 households to market the services to. He added that it was time the customers made a decision and allowed for real competition. Currently, most homes use both services.

Both West and Parlett are exploring ways that the increased capacity can open new businesses on island. A task force is to be established to push this aspect of the plan. Telemedicine has long been touted as an opportunity given the limitations of access to specialist care on island. Distance education, business process outsourcing, data centres and related applications are other ideas. There is potential for the island to host fintech ventures and operate a satellite ground station facility, which relays internet signals from providers to satellites. West also stated that the island, as is the case for most of the region consume rather than produce content and the new connection allows for Montserrat to step up and become a content creator, whether shows to stream as on Netflix or software solutions.

West called on the telecom providers to once and for all sort out the island’s IP addresses. Dependent on the day and provider, your system will register as being in Anguilla or Jamaica. It is important, he added that Montserrat be recognized as the source of the data being sent.

Montserrat’s Premier, Hon. Joseph Farrell stated, “The Government is pleased to be partnering with Southern Caribbean Fiber on this major project to provide the backbone for resilient and reliable high speed internet service on island.
“Technology plays a critical role in advancing the development of Montserrat; and this project is symbolic of our thrust and desire to build our economy in a digital age. With this infrastructure, we can rest assured that Montserrat has positioned itself for more business opportunities and our communications systems are now more robust and should not be adversely affected by natural hazards, such as hurricanes. This assurance will no doubt play a major role in strengthening our business and investment climate. The stage is now set for the telecommunications providers here to tap into this resource, and compete in the delivery of new and improved service offerings to consumers. The government also intends to expand its e-government offerings and aggressively pursue Distance Learning and Telemedicine innovations for the benefit of its citizens.”

Baroness Sugg CBE, Minister for Overseas Territories and Sustainable Development at the Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO) said, “I am delighted that Montserrat’s new high speed fibre optic cable has been commissioned. This is the first major project to be delivered through the £30 million Capital Investment Programme for Resilient Economic Growth (CIPREG), funded by the UK Government. The launch of this cable represents a fantastic opportunity to stimulate Montserrat’s economic growth, bolster the island’s hurricane resilience and enable economic diversification. This tells the world Montserrat is open for business.”