Catch the pigeon

South Africa lags in 87th place on an ITU ranking of countries with the best internet services

Tags: CompetitionComplaintKenyaSouth AfricaUnited Arab Emirates
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By  Roger Field Published  September 17, 2009

While today's telecoms landscape, with its much-hyped 4G technologies and ultra fast broadband, might seem long way from the age of the humble carrier pigeon, a recent competition in South Africa proved that progress might not always be what it seems.

The race, which was organised by an IT company rankled by slow broadband speeds in South Africa, pitted Winston the carrier pigeon against the ADSL service of South African operator Telkom.

Both participants were charged with the task of transferring 4GB of data a distance of 60km, between the IT firm's call centre in Howick and its office in Durban.

When Winston - which had a 4GB memory card strapped to his foot - reached the office in Durban, the ADSL service had transferred just 4% of the data.

Of course, while the pigeon might have fared less well over a much longer distance, the race served as a reminder that while technology has revolutionised telecommunications across much of the world, many countries are struggling to keep pace.

South Africa lags in 87th place on an ITU ranking of countries with the best internet services, placing it behind countries including Mauritius and Palestine. But some recent developments promise to raise the standard of internet services across Africa.

Projects including the Seacom cable, which connects South Africa with India, Europe, and the Middle East, and the TEAMS cable, which connects Kenya to the Middle East, indicate that significant progress is being made to strengthen communications in Africa.

Seacom recently entered partnerships with Uganda Telecom and Rwandacell that will further extend the reach of international broadband capacity across eastern Africa. In late August, the two operators bought international broadband capacity from Seacom, which in turn secured a backhaul solution giving both companies immediate access to the Seacom network.

Meanwhile, the TEAMS cable, which links Kenya's second biggest city Mombasa to the UAE, is also set to go live imminently, according to the government of Kenya, which is spearheading the project. The cable, which has a capacity of 1.28 terabits per second is set to create a sea change in internet use in Kenya, which has until recently endured some of the most expensive broadband prices in the world.

While it may take some time for affordable, quality broadband services to come within reach of majority of Africa's population, the development of undersea cables, the ongoing deployment of WiMAX networks and even LTE trials look set to fundamentally change communications in Africa in the coming years.

Let's see if Winston can keep up.

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