Thursday, September 10, 2009

(empo-tuulwey) When broadband is not broad - the South African carrier pigeon story

We all do it.

We all hear about the technical specs for a particular technology. Or, better yet, perhaps we hear about a success story with a particular technology. Then, when we look at our needs, we decide that the technology will address our needs.

It sounds like a reasonable thing to do. We didn't just jump into the technology and say "I want that." We actually took the time to look at our needs, made sure that the technology met our needs, and then selected the technology that met those needs.

So, for example, let's say that you have a need to move large amounts of data from one location to another. Are you going to choose broadband, or are you going to choose a carrier pigeon?

To some of you, this may seem like a straightforward decision.

To others of you who happened to see this BBC article, this may seem like a straightforward decision, but perhaps a different decision:

A Durban [South Africa] IT company pitted an 11-month-old bird armed with a 4GB memory stick against the ADSL service from the country's biggest web firm, Telkom.

Winston the pigeon took two hours to carry the data 60 miles - in the same time the ADSL had sent 4% of the data.

Several articles (e.g. ITWire) note that the reason for the poor network performance was because of congested bandwidth, and they also note that completion of a 17,000 km underwater cable will ease the congestion between different parts of South Africa. Whether that will help with the 60 mile data transfer above is questionable, and it should also be noted that Telkom customers won't get the benefit:

I FEEL ambivalent about the arrival of Seacom. On the one hand, there is excitement surrounding the first east-coast undersea bandwidth cable landing in South Africa.

On the other, it will be some time before the full benefits will be realised and the companies which should be saving South Africa from our ridiculously priced bandwidth have been handed an excuse to milk the SA market for a little while longer.

And that's because, at time of Seacom going live, only one company in South Africa can capitalise on the new international bandwidth.

Everyone else is tied up in Telkom contracts that stretch over the next 12 to 18 months at least, from what I can tell. The incumbent network operator saw Seacom coming and used its grip on the market to secure contracts with major clients to tie them down well beyond Seacom being switched on.

But this episode reminds us that we can bandy technical terms about - "broadband," "real-time," whatever - but to really understand whether a technology meets our needs, we have to do a deep dive. Perhaps a technology that will meet my needs in Ontario, California might not meet the needs of someone in Durban, South Africa - and vice versa.
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