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All you can eat bandwidth in Africa – is it worth it?

06 February, 2013
ICT Africa Writer
February 6, 2013

Africans have lived with painful restrictions on the amount of data they are allowed to download for any given month – or bandwidth cap. Bandwidth caps as low as 1GB on ADSL accounts are common. Caps get even more restrictive when one is using mobile broadband because the cost of transmitting data over a mobile network can be up to 200 times more than the wire-line alternative. Unfortunately almost all broadband access in Africa is wireless.

Telkom and several ISPs in South Africa have for a few years started offering all you can eat, uncapped ADSL Internet access. Prices can range from about $10 per month to as high as $600 per month depending on the Internet speed, whether your service is shaped or unshaped and other enticements that may be thrown into the Internet access package. ADSL Internet speeds range from 384Kbps to 10Mbps in South Africa. Shaped ADSL services are prioritised, with higher priority given to emails, browsing and such valuable services as Internet Banking. The big question for me is whether the average African Internet user, who cannot afford hundreds of dollars in Internet access subscriptions, is better off sticking to capped services with decent download speed than signing up to the so called uncapped services with snail download speed. My experience using Internet in Africa (including South Africa) is that when you attempt to download a file on a slow connection (such as 384Kbps), things tend to time out a lot and you have to retry too many times for long periods of time, up to hours. I have learnt the hard way to carry all my important files on a memory stick when travelling to Africa because attempting to download the files from the office at the slow speeds that I usually have access to, is a nightmare. So if I were to pick a service, considering the way they are structured in South Africa, I would pick a capped service with fast download speed – at least 4Mbps.

The introduction of uncapped services in South Africa has also opened an interesting discussion of bandwidth hogs. There has been a witch hunt of sorts lately in South Africa with some trying to identify, name and expose those uncapped ADSL subscribers who chew the most bandwidth. Some, including company CEOs, have been found to chew TBs of data in a single month. My initial reaction was so what? If one subscribes to an uncapped service, they have the legal right to use as much bandwidth as they want. But the issue of bandwidth hogs and bandwidth abuse did not start with South Africa. It has been an issue in many countries but until recently, operators had found solace in the fact that overuse of bandwidth by hogs is compensated by the low bandwidth usage of the average subscriber.

But with the ever increasing bandwidth starving applications, an increasing number of people are becoming bandwidth hogs. Most of us who live in America with teenagers and young adults at home are by default bandwidth hogs. Operators and service providers are finding themselves having to address this issue before it goes out of hand. ATT, for example, allows only 250 GB download per month and everything above that limit is charged $10 for every 50 GB over. Their Internet access speed is typically 24Mbps.

So while Africa is looking at uncapping bandwidth like operators in the developing world, those operators are looking at re-introducing bandwidth caps.


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