Monday, August 23, 2010

Africa on the "cusp"

Just before I got married my now-wife asked me to get a job "somewhere exotic", she had no idea what she was getting into.

One day I got a call from a former customer (I am an IT consultant by trade) asking me to come back to the organization to lead a large technical deployment. Having worked for this customer on/off for several years and seeing my life changing with a pending wedding I said "Yes, on one condition. After I have completed the project I would like a real-job".

They came through and for the last year and a half we have been living in Johannesburg, South Africa. We have since seen the birth of our first child and have another on the way and as my wife now puts it "South Africa is just not exotic enough to forgive it's shortcomings".

I grew up on the continent mostly in West and Central Africa and some time in southern as well so before we made the move I had a good idea of the journey we were embarking on, but times have changed and although South Africa is truly a shining star in many ways, there are times the tarnish shows through. I won't delve too deeply into the political and social challenges this country faces, when one looks past the crime and the sometimes very obvious divide between the "haves and the have-nots" South Africa is a fantastic example of the best and worst that humanity has to offer, but I digress as this is not the point of this rant.

So what is the point? Technology.

I am responsible for IT and Telecommunications for Southern Africa, I also spend a good deal of time working in West and Central Africa as well, I can say this much, when it comes to technology I would take South Africa any day and that is just not saying much.

We still have a concept in this country for home Internet access that for folks in Europe, most of Asia and North/South America would be completely alien: Bandwith Caps.

That's correct, the majority of the providers sell you a "cap" (normally in increments of 1GB/Month), use it up and you have to call the provider and "top up". Insane in 2010? You bet ya! The argument is that by selling caps the providers are able to lower the per-month cost and provide Internet accessibility to lower income communities. I call bullshit.

Well as stated earlier I am in the "biz" and spend the great majority of my time connected. I need access to VPNs and Servers World wide and I simply cannot be in the middle of some upgrade or downloading a giant patch and have my provider say "time to top-up!". So when we moved I went on a quest to find a provider who could give me an unlimited Internet option without requiring a mortgage for the monthly payment.

While there are now a few additional options for unlimited bandwidth in SA, there were far fewer when we arrived and even then they all depend on copper (ADSL) and no matter how you slice it or who you write a check to every month, when it comes down to it these solutions all go through one big Monopoly who shall remain nameless, a company who's reputation is well, not stellar.

So I went with the new kid on-the-block, one who is laying fiber like they own the place (if you live in SA you know who I am talking about). These folks are taking over a bit at a time in the business space (SA has been toying with deregulation of sorts) and where you hear the name come up a good deal in this space as a fiber provider you rarely hear of them for last-mile and almost never when it comes to home solutions, but indeed they offer home access both capped and uncapped and the solution I went with originally is simply bizarre.

The home solution, provided by the company with more fiber per km2 is get this: EVDO/CDMA! Yep, they sent me a phone. It is a Du Pont CDMA2000 phone with a USB cable, you plug it in and use your PPP to connect to the network, costs almost $120 a month and depending on your area is supposed to provide 1Mbps down and "who knows" up.

I have been using that service for over a year, the 1Mbps is more like 300Kbps and the up speed makes me swear I hear a modem tone when in use but we have been able to Skype with the folks back home and the grandparents have been able to watch their grand-child grow up (albeit looking a bit like an impressionist painting) and my wife can chat with family and friends. All-in-all it works 90% of the time and I have never felt the need to experiment with the copper providers and their awesome jimmy-hats.

I miss FIOS.

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