De Ole Dawg – Part 23:2017 -The Fibre Optic Cable project and development aid to Montserrat

What are our “reasonable assistance/development needs”?  

BRADES, Montserrat – We must always express thanks to the people and government of the UK for their support over these past twenty-two years of volcano crisis. (Indeed, without that aid, Montserrat would have long since collapsed.) However, sometimes there is need to highlight points of legitimate concern for improvement. This, is one of those times.

Let’s start with a big question or two, since the Montserrat Fibre Optic Cable project’s Business Case rests on the principles, facts and policy commitments that are the foundation of ALL of Montserrat’s applications for development assistance. If that case is now unilaterally set aside, how then can we make a responsible case for ANY further aid? (Including, for annual budgetary aid? And, if our main aid/development partner, DfID, is so reluctant to make a vote of confidence in Montserrat’s future, why should any other investor even give us “the time of day”?)

That, is how serious the ongoing hold-up on the FO Cable project is.

For, we the people of Montserrat were recently shocked to learn[1] that the highly regarded Montserrat Submarine Fibre Optic Cable project has been put on hold. Little explanation was given by Mr Indranil Chakrabarti (Deputy Head of DfID’s Overseas Territories Department) et al. Other than, that according to the current log frame table,[2] the Government of Montserrat is now told to try find partners willing to fund at least 50% of the £4.94 million cost. It seems, the Business Case point that market barriers make it highly unlikely to find such partners has simply been set aside by DfID. Where, just last year, the Business Case was approved by DfID for funding at the 97% level, £4.84 million. It actually went out to tender.

This shows us almost everything we need to understand the challenges we face to get our long-delayed strategic development projects through. Yes, it is easy to document the often declared HMG policy that “reasonable assistance [or, “development”] needs” of Montserrat and other UK Overseas Territories have a “first call” on the UK development aid budget. But, it is equally easy to see that even the best quality projects too often run into needless roadblocks and delays.[3] So, if we are to learn how to remove such roadblocks, it will be helpful to study the FO Cable project.

Now, by about 1994, Montserrat had its first fibre optic cable, brought ashore at Foxes Bay. However, in 1997, service of this cable was lost due to the volcano eruption. Our telecommunications connectivity was thus forced back to using microwave links to Antigua. Which, in a broadband Internet age, is increasingly inadequate. We are stuck at 150 – 400 million bits per second over a link that – as Hurricane Maria just showed – easily goes down if there is a big storm. Fibre offers up to 10 – 30 trillion – yes, 30 million million – bits per second for a typical Cable and such a cable is much less vulnerable to hurricanes. No wonder, then, that by 2010 work had begun on a Fibre Optic Cable replacement project.

By 2012 – 14,  the Terabit consultants submitted several favourable reports, which were shared with DfID.  The project was being praised in speeches by visiting UK officials.  By 2014 DfID brought in a consultant and was developing a Business Case in collaboration with Government of Montserrat officers.  Yes: the Business Case for the FO Cable project was largely developed by DfID. A key argument in that Business Case[4] is:

“Given the small size of the market in Montserrat (less than 5000 residents and 2500 households), the private sector has not been very aggressive in rolling out new broadband services. Both the current telecommunications providers have indicated that the potential financial return on investment cannot justify the level of capital investment required to re-establish the fibre optic link. However, other competing providers have recognised the wider potential to service Montserrat with broadband-based services. A 2012 study commissioned by GoM highlighted examples of where the lack of affordable, reliable and abundant international bandwidth was likely to continue to serve as a deterrent to future investment and could also devalue existing investments in the public and private sectors (Terabit Consulting, 2012).” [p.2]

The Case went on to set out a preferred option:  public sector investment in a new cable, with a long-term lease agreement with a provider to operate and maintain the cable. Improved resiliency, provision of enhanced digital services and opportunities would feed economic growth and the cable should be financially viable.  This is directly parallel to the ongoing initiative in the UK to roll out super-fast broadband access across the UK, which has been ongoing through the UK Government’s Department for Culture, Media and Sport since at least 2010. At that time, this is what the David Cameron-led coalition government argued:

“Broadband is one of our top priorities . . . . That’s a challenging goal but it’s one that we can and must achieve. It’s vital for the growth of the economy – especially to small businesses who are so often the engines of innovation. It’s essential for the rebalancing of our economy the internet defies distance . . . . Effective, reliable and secure communications infrastructure is increasingly essential to life in our rural communities and we must make sure that they can benefit from the convenience of the delivery of online services – whether those come from government, local authorities or the private sector.” [Britain’s Superfast Broadband Future,[5] Foreword, p. 2.]

If this was true for the UK’s rural communities and small towns etc. by December 2010,  why is this, seemingly, suddenly less so for a volcano disaster-ravaged Montserrat needing to rebuild its economy so that it can stand on its own two feet?

Where, also, the underlying policy that drove the decision to approve the Business Case can be seen from the FCO 2012 White Paper on OT’s, p.13. The UK’s responsibility towards OT’s “flows from international law including the Charter of the United Nations. So, the UK  is to “promote the political, economic, social and educational advancement of the people of the Territories.” That is why “[t]he reasonable assistance needs of the Territories are a first call on the UK’s international development budget.”  (And yes, those who mock or dismiss this prime UK policy commitment do Montserrat a disservice; such irresponsible behaviour should stop.)

The actual words of the UN Charter Article 73 require that the UK acts  “to ensure, with due respect for the culture of the peoples concerned, their political, economic, social, and educational advancement, their just treatment, and their protection against abuses”; as well as, “to promote constructive measures of development.” 

Obviously,  “ensure” and “promote” mean just what they say. That is, sound development is to be actually ensured and promoted – not “blocked, frustrated or unduly delayed” –  in Montserrat and other UK OT’s. That’s why our “reasonable assistance [or even: “development”] needs” have long held a “first call” on the UK’s aid budget.  Therefore, given the soundness of the FO Project’s case and the reality of obvious post-disaster market barriers DFID approved it and agreed to invest £4.84 million. (A fairly modest sum.)

Now, laying cables from St Kitts and Antigua to Montserrat would take a fairly short time. So, once funding was approved by late 2016 and a few months are allowed for procurement and mobilising a ship, we clearly should have had the Cable in place already. Instead, we yet again see needless delays and controversies. On fair comment, DfID is arguably failing to “ensure” and to “promote” reasonable “economic . . . advancement” in any good time. This has happened here far too often since 1998.

Obviously, DfID needs to revisit its recent unilateral announcements regarding the FO project. But the challenge is not to just one project: we urgently need a joint, whole-hearted long-term programme of action to rebuild and redevelop Montserrat. And now, also, the other disaster-ravaged OT’s.  

END

[1]           See TMR, Oct. 6, 2017: https://www.themontserratreporter.com/fibre-optic-cable-shocker/

[2]           Development Tracker, http://iati.dfid.gov.uk/iati_documents/7264847.XLS

[3]           See TMR, Aug 4, 2017: https://www.themontserratreporter.com/fibre-optics-delay-is-a-set-up/

[4]           See Development Tracker, note the “smoking gun” time gap between the Business Case and the updated log frame:  https://devtracker.dfid.gov.uk/projects/GB-1-203889/documents

[5]           See, HMG: http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/+/http:/www.culture.gov.uk/images/publications/10-1320-britains-superfast-broadband-future.pdf

One Response to “De Ole Dawg – Part 23:2017 -The Fibre Optic Cable project and development aid to Montserrat”

  1. William Spearshake says:

    I agree that the fibre optic cable is critical. We wouldn’t want any delays, or size restriction, on communications fromGordon (KairosFocus) Mullings.

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The Montserrat Reporter - August 18, 2017

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What are our “reasonable assistance/development needs”?  

BRADES, Montserrat – We must always express thanks to the people and government of the UK for their support over these past twenty-two years of volcano crisis. (Indeed, without that aid, Montserrat would have long since collapsed.) However, sometimes there is need to highlight points of legitimate concern for improvement. This, is one of those times.

Let’s start with a big question or two, since the Montserrat Fibre Optic Cable project’s Business Case rests on the principles, facts and policy commitments that are the foundation of ALL of Montserrat’s applications for development assistance. If that case is now unilaterally set aside, how then can we make a responsible case for ANY further aid? (Including, for annual budgetary aid? And, if our main aid/development partner, DfID, is so reluctant to make a vote of confidence in Montserrat’s future, why should any other investor even give us “the time of day”?)

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That, is how serious the ongoing hold-up on the FO Cable project is.

For, we the people of Montserrat were recently shocked to learn[1] that the highly regarded Montserrat Submarine Fibre Optic Cable project has been put on hold. Little explanation was given by Mr Indranil Chakrabarti (Deputy Head of DfID’s Overseas Territories Department) et al. Other than, that according to the current log frame table,[2] the Government of Montserrat is now told to try find partners willing to fund at least 50% of the £4.94 million cost. It seems, the Business Case point that market barriers make it highly unlikely to find such partners has simply been set aside by DfID. Where, just last year, the Business Case was approved by DfID for funding at the 97% level, £4.84 million. It actually went out to tender.

This shows us almost everything we need to understand the challenges we face to get our long-delayed strategic development projects through. Yes, it is easy to document the often declared HMG policy that “reasonable assistance [or, “development”] needs” of Montserrat and other UK Overseas Territories have a “first call” on the UK development aid budget. But, it is equally easy to see that even the best quality projects too often run into needless roadblocks and delays.[3] So, if we are to learn how to remove such roadblocks, it will be helpful to study the FO Cable project.

Now, by about 1994, Montserrat had its first fibre optic cable, brought ashore at Foxes Bay. However, in 1997, service of this cable was lost due to the volcano eruption. Our telecommunications connectivity was thus forced back to using microwave links to Antigua. Which, in a broadband Internet age, is increasingly inadequate. We are stuck at 150 – 400 million bits per second over a link that – as Hurricane Maria just showed – easily goes down if there is a big storm. Fibre offers up to 10 – 30 trillion – yes, 30 million million – bits per second for a typical Cable and such a cable is much less vulnerable to hurricanes. No wonder, then, that by 2010 work had begun on a Fibre Optic Cable replacement project.

By 2012 – 14,  the Terabit consultants submitted several favourable reports, which were shared with DfID.  The project was being praised in speeches by visiting UK officials.  By 2014 DfID brought in a consultant and was developing a Business Case in collaboration with Government of Montserrat officers.  Yes: the Business Case for the FO Cable project was largely developed by DfID. A key argument in that Business Case[4] is:

“Given the small size of the market in Montserrat (less than 5000 residents and 2500 households), the private sector has not been very aggressive in rolling out new broadband services. Both the current telecommunications providers have indicated that the potential financial return on investment cannot justify the level of capital investment required to re-establish the fibre optic link. However, other competing providers have recognised the wider potential to service Montserrat with broadband-based services. A 2012 study commissioned by GoM highlighted examples of where the lack of affordable, reliable and abundant international bandwidth was likely to continue to serve as a deterrent to future investment and could also devalue existing investments in the public and private sectors (Terabit Consulting, 2012).” [p.2]

The Case went on to set out a preferred option:  public sector investment in a new cable, with a long-term lease agreement with a provider to operate and maintain the cable. Improved resiliency, provision of enhanced digital services and opportunities would feed economic growth and the cable should be financially viable.  This is directly parallel to the ongoing initiative in the UK to roll out super-fast broadband access across the UK, which has been ongoing through the UK Government’s Department for Culture, Media and Sport since at least 2010. At that time, this is what the David Cameron-led coalition government argued:

“Broadband is one of our top priorities . . . . That’s a challenging goal but it’s one that we can and must achieve. It’s vital for the growth of the economy – especially to small businesses who are so often the engines of innovation. It’s essential for the rebalancing of our economy the internet defies distance . . . . Effective, reliable and secure communications infrastructure is increasingly essential to life in our rural communities and we must make sure that they can benefit from the convenience of the delivery of online services – whether those come from government, local authorities or the private sector.” [Britain’s Superfast Broadband Future,[5] Foreword, p. 2.]

If this was true for the UK’s rural communities and small towns etc. by December 2010,  why is this, seemingly, suddenly less so for a volcano disaster-ravaged Montserrat needing to rebuild its economy so that it can stand on its own two feet?

Where, also, the underlying policy that drove the decision to approve the Business Case can be seen from the FCO 2012 White Paper on OT’s, p.13. The UK’s responsibility towards OT’s “flows from international law including the Charter of the United Nations. So, the UK  is to “promote the political, economic, social and educational advancement of the people of the Territories.” That is why “[t]he reasonable assistance needs of the Territories are a first call on the UK’s international development budget.”  (And yes, those who mock or dismiss this prime UK policy commitment do Montserrat a disservice; such irresponsible behaviour should stop.)

The actual words of the UN Charter Article 73 require that the UK acts  “to ensure, with due respect for the culture of the peoples concerned, their political, economic, social, and educational advancement, their just treatment, and their protection against abuses”; as well as, “to promote constructive measures of development.” 

Obviously,  “ensure” and “promote” mean just what they say. That is, sound development is to be actually ensured and promoted – not “blocked, frustrated or unduly delayed” –  in Montserrat and other UK OT’s. That’s why our “reasonable assistance [or even: “development”] needs” have long held a “first call” on the UK’s aid budget.  Therefore, given the soundness of the FO Project’s case and the reality of obvious post-disaster market barriers DFID approved it and agreed to invest £4.84 million. (A fairly modest sum.)

Now, laying cables from St Kitts and Antigua to Montserrat would take a fairly short time. So, once funding was approved by late 2016 and a few months are allowed for procurement and mobilising a ship, we clearly should have had the Cable in place already. Instead, we yet again see needless delays and controversies. On fair comment, DfID is arguably failing to “ensure” and to “promote” reasonable “economic . . . advancement” in any good time. This has happened here far too often since 1998.

Obviously, DfID needs to revisit its recent unilateral announcements regarding the FO project. But the challenge is not to just one project: we urgently need a joint, whole-hearted long-term programme of action to rebuild and redevelop Montserrat. And now, also, the other disaster-ravaged OT’s.  

END

[1]           See TMR, Oct. 6, 2017: https://www.themontserratreporter.com/fibre-optic-cable-shocker/

[2]           Development Tracker, http://iati.dfid.gov.uk/iati_documents/7264847.XLS

[3]           See TMR, Aug 4, 2017: https://www.themontserratreporter.com/fibre-optics-delay-is-a-set-up/

[4]           See Development Tracker, note the “smoking gun” time gap between the Business Case and the updated log frame:  https://devtracker.dfid.gov.uk/projects/GB-1-203889/documents

[5]           See, HMG: http://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/+/http:/www.culture.gov.uk/images/publications/10-1320-britains-superfast-broadband-future.pdf