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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.

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Which brings us back to Winston the pigeon. Mr. Rolfe says the idea for the pigeon race came from a member of his IT department, who remembered an April Fool's joke of sending data by homing pigeons. After one too many incidents of a dropped line or a failed transfer, one IT tech finally blurted out, "We should just use pigeons."

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Taking a cue from former empires

As unusual as the idea sounds today, pigeons have been a powerful tool for empires, financial and otherwise. In the mid-19th century Paul Julius Reuter (founder of the Reuters news agency) used pigeons to send stock information between the cities of Aachen and Brussels, until telegraph service eventually replaced them. And as recently as World War I the British admiralty used pigeons to send battlefield information. (The Germans, predictably, trained falcons to intercept messages.)

Never a company to do things in half-measures, Unlimited Group began to promote its Pigeon Race 2009 on its website. Winston the pigeon soon had his own Facebook fan page, a website with training videos, and yes, Winston began to tweet. On Twitter. When Winston finally landed at the offices in Durban – risking hawks, gun-happy hunters, and high-winds – the results were carried by newspapers, TV stations, and were a huge sensation in the Twittersphere.

Winston's feat illustrates larger problem

Perhaps stung by the pigeon experiment, South Africa's giant communications company, Telkom, issued a statement to the South African Press Agency explaining that it was not to blame for Unlimited Group's slow internet service.

"Telkom would like to clarify that the company cannot be blamed for this particular customer's lack of throughput speeds," Troy Hector, Telkom's head of ICT, wrote to Sapa in an e-mail. "Several recommendations have, in the past, been made to the customer but none of these have, to date, been accepted. It must also be noted that Telkom is not the customer's core service provider."

Rolfe insists that the pigeon experiment was not aimed at any one particular company, but rather at the common problem that Internet have: slow Internet speed. A customer like Unlimited Group, which transmits an average of 500 megabytes of data per day, can't afford to have unreliable connectivity.

"Look, we don't blame Telkom or Neotel, or any of the other Internet providers," says Rolfe. "Those guys, the providers are doing the best job that they can. But we are saying, fine, let's sit down and think out of the box and figure out how to improve South Africa's telecommunications."

As for Winston, Rolfe says the pigeon is in no danger of losing his job. "He still goes out on training runs," Rolfe says, especially when the computer lines are down. "Using pigeons, it's not the optimal plan," he chuckles. "But we may do it from time to time, to give Winston some airtime."

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