The agreement reached between Minister of Telecommunication Ted Richardson and Government Service Caribbean Netherlands RCN for a fibre optic cable from St. Maarten to Saba and Statia has raised a number of questions, specifically regarding the benefit to the three islands and redundancy. Details of the agreement are yet to be made public by RCN and the Minister, writes the Daily Herald.
Contrary to popular belief and reports, the RCN cable is not the second fibre optic cable connected to the Dutch side of St. Maarten, but actually the third. The ECFS (East Caribbean Fiber System) lands on the French side with the fibre reaching the Dutch side (to the UTS building) over land. ECFS is a network of repeater-less fibre optic submarine communications cable that interconnects fourteen eastern Caribbean islands. The cable is 1730 km in length and runs from the British Virgin Islands to Trinidad in ten segments. It was first installed in September 1995. So the RCN cable will be the third fibre cable reaching the Dutch side and the fourth capacity source reaching the Dutch side. The GCN (Global Caribbean Network) cable also lands on French St. Martin and is connected to telecom providers on Dutch St. Maarten using microwave dishes. In other words, telecom providers have direct connection (via fibre and microwave) to three fibre cables that land on St. Maarten/ St. Martin.
The new RCN cable, which has already “landed” in St. Kitts, is there to connect Saba and Statia with fibre to the internet/capacity. The St. Kitts connection provides connectivity to Saba and Statia with the ECFS and GCN also landing in St. Kitts near the same landing of RCN. As such, Saba and Statia are already using the RCN fibre cable getting connectivity from the ECFS sold to them by telecom provider LIME (St. Kitts). RCN’s reported intention with the connection from St. Maarten to Saba and Statia is to create a competitive field in which any operator (LIME, UTS, TelEm etc) will be able to offer capacity at the lowest possible price to Saba and Statia. RCN has also listed other benefits with the provision of the cable.
As it is understood, the RCN cable from St. Maarten to Saba and Statia can only offer St. Maarten significant redundancy if it is connected to St. Kitts on the ECFS or GCN connections and capacity “pumped” back to St. Maarten. St. Maarten, via the French side, is already connected to these two. Additionally, laying the RCN cable right next to the existing SMPR-1 fibre optic cable in Great Bay, could compromise any redundancy offered. The SMPR-1 cable was damaged not too long ago by a ship’s anchor in a storm. With both cables lying next to each other, any such future occurrence could result in both cables snapping. This is one of the reasons UTS has always argued that its manhole, approximately 100 metres away from TelEm’s, would be a better option as it offers an alternate route for the RCN cable and less chances of both cables being damaged at the same time.
The government of St. Maarten had also used the “environment” argument to block RCN from bringing in its cable until it was clear that the cable would land at TelEm’s manhole. Government claimed that RCN’s cable could not pass through certain under water foliage without permanently damaging this aspect of the environment. A report that RCN showed the court indicated that the foliage the SMPR-1 passed through to get to the TelEm manhole is the same foliage they would have to pass through to get to the UTS manhole. The path, RCN argued at the time, was identical, with the landing a 100 metres or so apart. The issue is moot in any case considering the agreement recently reached, despite UTS having won the bid last year and securing a letter of intent.
The RCN cable brings a much better path of transmission to Saba and Statia (fibre instead of Microwave) which is faster and hurricane resistant as well as the possibility for better prices. Telecom providers on St. Maarten will be able to sell and generate revenue which in turn will generate turn-over-tax revenue for government. For St. Maarten it brings (some) redundancy and it could create a competitive edge for consumers. However, providing a competitive edge could be complicated if TelEm charges the usual cross connect, collocation charges etc to other telecom providers who will be connecting onto the RCN cable. This is why UTS for example, was all for bringing in more capacity via different sources that could lead to more attractive internet prices on the island. It should be pointed out that there has been no indication as to how and under what conditions other telecom providers will connect to the RCN cable.
Until this is clear, competitive positions in the benefit of the consumer are all speculation. Moreover, being “competitive” on St. Maarten is dependent on volume of people which St. Maarten does not have in great amounts. St. Maarten, with its multiple telecom providers and a population of roughly 50,000 people, does not afford telecom providers much space to offer low competitive prices and generate revenue to stay financially viable.