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Why is internet so slow in South Africa?

Published by on Jun 20th, 2013, 8 Comments

internet

by Tim Wyatt-Gunning, CEO Web Africa

When we fall asleep, I am told that we go through a few phases, one of which is curiously named after an aging American rock band. I’ve never quite come to terms with the whole REM thing because just conceptualising any rapid movement going on beneath my eyelids when I’m trying to sleep freaks me out.

All of which leads me to an admission of my concentration problems while listening to technical wizards painfully complicating our already over-complicated lives with their confident use of vocabulary which they must have made up.

It’s my waking version of REM – the curtains are drawn but the lights are on as I scrabble 27 other possible more exciting meanings for their latest acronym.

Why can’t this man (because, let’s face it, they usually are, sorry chaps) explain this concept in a way in which I will understand? Einstein managed to give us a very truncated version of quite a tricky issue so WHY CAN’T YOU?  Alan, our Web African tech guru, always takes a wonderfully deep breath as he digs deep into his vault of knowledge and reconfigures for idiots like me but I can see it exhausts him. For all the Alan’s out there, these articles are not for you. I’m sorry.

For those of us who still believe that gigs are something our favourite musicians should be producing rather than our ISP, read on!

So I’m planning a few articles to explain, in the simple way I understand, some of the commonly asked questions of Web Africa and probably several of our fellow ISP’s.

First up let’s ask why our internet is so slow in South Africa when, compared with most countries, we presume to have very fast internet?

The answer is because Justin Bieber is American (or at least he’s trying to be).

Forget the techie-speak claptrap and imagine this.

You live in Woodstock, Cape Town (like we Web Africans do) and have a hilarious German cousin who emails you two tickets to join her for Justin Bieber’s “farewell, I’m giving up music”, and rightly so, concert. You would have thrown them away, but your teenage daughter found them first. The problem is the concert is happening tomorrow night, and it’s in New York. You need to get there sharp, sharp. There are two major things which will determine whether you make it or not:

  • The directness of the route that you take
  • The speed of the transport which you use en route

And then, of course, on top of all that, whether you can afford the most direct route with the fastest transport.

You pack your bag, you set the alarm, you fetch your daughter (assuming she’s at school and not in the house), you run down to Main Road listen to her humming “And I was like baby, baby, baby, oh”,  you wait 10 minutes for a taxi,  taxi arrives, it’s full, you wait another 10 minutes for the next one, you get it, it goes the busiest route to ensure high passenger loads, finally gets on the N2 and dumps you and your daughter somewhere close-ish to the airport. It’s taken 1 hour to get there, and of 3 flights to New York that day you’ve already missed one and the next best bet is Turkish Airlines via Istanbul.  You have to get it. If you are very lucky, you might make it to the concert but it’s an awfully long way to go, it’s expensive and it’s so slow.

Meanwhile, your hilarious German cousin drove at 180kmh on an autobahn, got to the airport in 15 minutes and had the option of 5 different direct flights to New York that day. She’s arriving in New York just as your connecting flight takes off from Istanbul. You don’t find her that funny anymore. Forget her, New Yorker Beliebers are still a full working day away from considering whether to walk or get the subway to the concert. They’re not worrying about getting there, all they care about is how good his show is going to be.

And that, in a nutshell, is our internet life in South Africa. Almost every time we want to travel to see Justin Beiber, because he lives in America, we have further to go than most others, and to top it all we have a dodgy, complex and variable transport system to get there. And most of the delays are caused by traffic jams in getting us to the airport.

Translated into the world of internet access, unfortunately we, as South Africans, need to make the trip to another country, usually America or Europe, pretty much every time we Google something, stream something via YouTube or download on iTunes, torrent, Skype etc. Why? Because most of those videos which our beliebing daughters want to watch are stored on servers in those countries, and every time you watch them you have to make the full return trip!

Just occasionally, Justin Beiber plays his big hits on tour in SA and we don’t have to travel so far (welcome to the world of “caching”, but let’s not complicate things now, I’m just worried that Alan is actually reading this).

When it’s not rush-hour, often we get lucky, we hit the local roads when traffic is light and we find a direct international flight with a minimal wait. We’re beginning to progress but we still can’t guarantee success:

  • We can now get to the airport quicker, if we live in one of 53 streets in the country: Telkom has recently introduced the Gautrain of local internet access, with the launch of VDSL – when it’s more widely valuable and affordable, we will be able to browse with the best of them, although by that time they will be traveling by spacecraft.
  • From the airport, we can now get to any international destination tens of times quicker than we could a few years ago

So what’s our role in all of this, your ISP? We try and make sure that from the time you leave your home or office until the time you get to your destination, on whatever mode of transport you can afford, we choose the quickest route for you and do whatever we can to make sure you’re traveling in the class you paid for. My own experience (and yes, Marius in Bloem, I do understand your Telkom line has been down for 3 weeks because someone nicked the copper cable) is that we generally do a pretty good job. I can watch most movies I download within 5 minutes of starting to download them, I can stream YouTube without buffering 95% of the time and I can speak to my mum in the UK every Sunday at 7pm, crystal clear over Skype, not that I always wish it was.

First class in a taxi still, sadly, means you’re in a taxi. It’s changing though. Fast. My step-daughter went to the little chap’s concert the other day, and I only had to drop her off 3 km’s down the road, close to our superstar-magnet of a stadium. They’re starting to come to us. Lady Gaga, Metallica, U2, RHCP, Michael MCIntyre, Jimmy Carr – apparently Rihanna’s next, so we can soon cache her too!

Our beautiful internet. Early days.

 

tim-wyatt-gunningAbout the Author: Tim graduated from Cambridge in 1992, was a slave banker in London for 4 years, before getting involved in the European telecommunications industry in 1996 with LDI. In 1999, he went AWOL and moved to South Africa to set up Storm Telecom.

For 9 years Tim co-ran Storm, driving it to revenues of over R250m, with over 6 000 business customers across the country, until it was bought by Vox Telecom in January 2008 for R360m.

Bored of ‘time out’ from the industry, Tim joined Web Africa as CEO in October 2011. He’s never looked back, even if he still doesn’t quite get the consumer space, but it’s loads of fun and it’s going places!

Follow him on Twitter @Tim_WG

Comments

  • FireBlade

    Great article… So how do I get to work at Web Africa so that I can join in on this kind of thinking and start the problem solving? ;-) *hint hint* hehe

  • Cloudy

    jeez,what a convoluted explanation – I think the tech jargon would have been easier to understand. or maybe its the mention of Justin Bieber that causes the brain to freeze

  • Marc Forrest

    Love Tim’s humour. Miss those good ‘ol days :)
    Brilliant article and explanation !

  • Des

    With the greatest of respect to your apparent knowledge of the industry as well as your position in it Tim, I don’t believe I’ve heard such a lot of codswallop in an article in my life! The piece is not even on subject!!! The internet is a poorly serviced entity simply because the key ingredient in the mix, Telkom is nothing but a disfunctional pretence of key infrustructure. Perhaps you should have checked HelloPeter where the list of customer complaints is now heading to the 6,000 mark when I last looked. When only one in 13 dissatisfied clients bother to complain, this should give you an idea of the problem we, the long suffering customer base, are enduring. But perhaps you don’t want to ruffle feathers or you’re being paid to put a spin on your article? If that’s the case, give the job to someone who can write an objective (and on-topic one) and save us from such wishy-washy contributions to an issue that is approaching ‘investigation’ proportions.

  • meandmythoughts

    Hey Des

    You clearly don’t read much or never seen some of the YOU magazine articles out there.

    Yes Telkom is the problem but we all know this. Why state the obvious? I think what Tim is trying to achieve is to explain to the laymen (say most of our parents) on why internet is so slow in a fun and comical way. It is clear to see this is not aimed at someone who is too technical, such as yourself?

    As for ruffling feathers – I don’t think this is a case, just do a search on “telkom Tim wayatt gunning” and see what he has to say. The good thing is he is not the only one, many of the ISPs top guns are doing the same.(PS – yes I am a Web Africa client but I am also an Afrihost client too)

    Anyway your opinion is your opinion and where would we be without our own opinions? I know I wouldn’t be writing this if you didn’t take time out of your day to respond.

    Have a great weekend

  • joumasesomething

    jirre tim, you are a bit of a dimwit, aren’t you, thinking REM sleep is named after the band. Trying to be smart, tom, my boy? Not so!

  • Jonathan

    Isn’t Justin Bieber Canadian?

  • DookOfURL

    I was pleasantly surprised to read an explanation that made sense and did not rely on the usual wild blaming of Telkom.

    Luckily for the readers, Des comes along to remind us all how simple it is and that it’s just entirely the fault of those useless chaps at Telkom.

    And it really is quite unconscionable to start accusing someone who has already made lots of being “paid off” or of “spinning” for Telkom.

    Des, is it the case that EVERYONE who does not share your view is somehow dubious or suspect? That’s the way you write, so kindly explain the logic supporting your contention.

    Ooh, and no I don’t work in the telecomms industry or have anything to do with them as part of my job. I AM, however, interested in getting speeds of 40Mbps soon. For better or worse, the only place some people will be able to get that is Telkom.

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