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Homing pigeon faster than Internet? In S. Africa, the answer's yes.

Frustrated by Africa's unreliable service, a business needing to send 4GB of data 50 miles put Winston the pigeon up against the Web – and Winston won.

By Scott BaldaufStaff writer / September 10, 2009



Johannesburg, South Africa

Sometimes 12th-century technology wins.

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This week, a South African call-center business, frustrated by persistently slow Internet speeds, decided to use a carrier pigeon named Winston to transfer 4 gigabytes of data between two of its offices, just 50 miles apart. At the same time, a computer geek pushed a button on his computer to send data the old-fashioned way, through the Internet.

Winston the pigeon won. It wasn't even close.

"Winston arrived after two hours, six minutes, and 57 seconds," says Kevin Rolfe, head of the information technology department at Unlimited Group, a call-center business based in Durban. As for the Internet data transfer, he says, "when we finally stopped the computer, about 100 megs had transferred, which is about 4 percent of the total."

Officially, the Unlimited Group has not given up on the Internet, nor has it any plans to embrace the use of homing pigeons that was pioneered on the battlefield by Genghis Khan. But while the pigeon-versus-Internet stunt was a resounding success in terms of satire, it also makes a point that many businesses throughout Africa are making: Africans pay some of the highest prices for some of the least reliable Internet service in the world. And if a country like South Africa – relatively prosperous and developed – can't solve this problem, then it's going to need a lot more pigeons.

In most parts of Africa, Internet service is provided by satellite transmission dishes, an expensive and unreliable option. Go to an Internet cafe in Kinshasa or Khartoum, and you'll see dozens of earnest students and businessmen, typing out messages, pushing the send button, and then hoping the power doesn't go out before the message gets sent.

Your humble correspondent in Africa last year attempted to send about one minute of digital video of displaced people in Kenya to his headquarters in Boston, through the so-called broadband Internet service provided at his Nairobi hotel. Six hours later, there was still an hourglass icon on his screen, with a message that simply read "sending."

Undersea cable brings broadband to some

In theory, Africa's problems are already well on their way to being solved. A $650 million undersea cable, linking the Kenyan port city of Mombasa with a larger sea cable system servicing Asia, was officially activated in late July of this year, bringing most major cities in East Africa their first taste of high-speed broadband Internet. But three months later, local Internet service providers have refused to drop their prices, offering increased bandwidth at the same price.

Some African nations have gone all-out to get the most bang out of the cable. Rwanda, for instance, has extended a high-speed fiber-optic cable network to every district and every major town in the country in anticipation of the cable, in hopes of turning itself into an information-technology hub like Singapore. Others, like South Africa, have been updating their systems, but can't keep up with the exploding demand.

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