If you’re in the USA, you don’t care about bandwidth much, because you have got plenty of it. As proof, the wikipedia entry on bandwidth leaves a gap where most Kenyans experience the Internet:
|56 kbit/s||Modem / Dialup|
|56-1500 kbit/s||All Kenya Internet Falls here|
|1.5 Mbit/s||ADSL Lite|
|11 Mbit/s||Wireless 802.11b|
|54 Mbit/s||Wireless 802.11g|
|100 Mbit/s||Fast Ethernet|
|600 Mbit/s||Wireless 802.11n|
|1 Gbit/s||Gigabit Ethernet|
|10 Gbit/s||10 Gigabit Ethernet|
|100 Gbit/s||100 Gigabit Ethernet|
Typical Internet speeds (in 2011) are on par with mobile phone data transfer rates (0.1 to 250 kbps):
So whereas in the USA websites always work and things always stream (though some people must wait for the video buffer to fill), in Kenya the Internet often simply doesn’t work. There are sketchy companies here that overload their data pipes with more customers than it can handle, creating a dysfunctional web mess. Basic websites like GMAIL or FACEBOOK can take over 10 minutes to load, and too often they time out and fail completely. You can see a mess of whitespace on the screen (because the CSS fails to load) about a quarter of the time at some Cyber Cafes.
Did you know: Americans download 20 GB of data per month, whereas Africans only download 0.8 GB on average. It is not for lack of interest in Internet that Africans consume only 5%, but because the bandwidth is poorly managed.
This problem seems to be most prevalent in East Africa. It wasn’t a problem for me when I lived in The Gambia, Senegal, and Ghana – where there is less overall bandwidth coming into the country, yet ISPs managed it better.
So whom should we trust in Kenya to deliver a reliable connection?
Real vs. local speeds: Even when a service clocks in at 8.0 mbps locally, the real transfer rate of content from Kenya to USA is 0.20 mbps, and the upload rate is 0.05 mbps. This speed is comparable to a dialup modem. Large websites (like DailyShow, YouTube, and Google) do serve their content from nearby servers, so the real rate is better.
Zuku is cheaper and many people in Kilimani, Kileleshwa, Lavington, and Ngong road use their fiber optics. People I talked to seem to like Zuku, until something breaks – then they hate Zuku because it can take months to get service. They stretch their bandwidth to the breaking point, and you’ll might share a connection with 64 users. They require a 1 year contract. After trying 3 phone numbers and a broken web contact form, I gave up trying to reach someone to inquire about becoming a customer.
SafariCom WyMAX (through Instaconnect or Iconet; RECOMMENDED) delivers an actual 2 mbps for $90 using a WyMAX (wireless antenna). You only share a line with 8 users. They don’t require a contract, but we paid $180 up front. On day one I was promised a dedicated 2 mbps line (bandwidth not shared with any strangers) for $90 a month, no contract, and only a deposit. On day two a salesman came to our home and offered me WyMAX with 8 people. The day three he called back to ask for another $90 immediately to “purchase bandwidth” instead of a deposit. They didn’t take VISA. It was cash only. Over the next 3 days they played phone tag, promising us the installation team was coming, forcing us to change our plans. Finally they did arrive on day 6 and it only took them 7 hours to install it on the roof. Even from our roof, there was a bit of phone tag involved.
After 3 hours of silence up there, I called them. “Hey, I’m just curious how it is going.”
“I am trying to find a signal.”
Two hours later, one of our apartment friends said she heard the man say they needed to go to town to buy a hammer.
Finally, as the sun was going down, they connected it. Then Heather watched them check their own mail for a half hour in our apartment as a “test” of the system.
Now I know why they kept not showing up. It took two people a whole work day to install one system. But we love the results! Faster than anywhere in town!
The www.speedtest.net results for our home were 1.97 mbps / 0.17 mbps. CNET reported download speeds of 490 kpbs at 6pm and 1.61 mbps at 12 midnight. This connection allows me to simultanously skype call, stream NPR news, check Gmail, run speedtest.net, and run a python program locally without any sites breaking. That’s awesome! I can even watch the Daily Show, YouTube, and NFL.com without buffering!
Note: The only way to sign up seems to be a lot of phone tag, which leads to this magic, unlisted phone number: 0722-634-162 or 722-683-610. (Please correct me in the comments if you find this deal advertised anywhere online!)
SafariCom EDGE modem is great for taking your laptop on the road with Internet. They advertise 3.6 mbps for an expensive $16 a GB. Actual test speeds were 3.59 mbps at night and a crawling 0.15 mbps in the Afternoon. The problem is everyone has jumped on the EDGE/GPRS modem bandwagon too. You will share a connection with dozens of users, and you will pay more.
Kenya Data Networks (KDN) only sells to businesses. They clock in at between 1.40 mbps to 33 mbps on speedtest.net – depending on which deal the Cyber Cafe has purchased.
AccessKenya.Com was the cheapest option and offers a variable “high speed” connection that peaks at 1.3 mbps for $50 to $115 a month. Several people who have used them described the daytime service as “barely usable.”
Update September 2011
Here is my diary of logging actual internet speeds around Nairobi (numbers in mbps or mbit/s):
1.97 / .41 (noon Saturday 1-22-2011 – from home)
0.518 (5:30pm Thursday 2-03-2011 – from hone)
0.081 mbps (9:30am, Saturday 2-12-2011 via SafariCom 3G EDGE modem)
0.091 AccessKenya – at Ndemi guest house at 11am.
0.212 Orange Internet Everywhere 3G+ (3pm)
0.875 Orange Internet Everywhere 3G+ (9:27pm)
0.050 Vincent Attitwa Washika – near Mumias – on modem 2-14-2011
0.001 Safaricom modem (saturday 10am, 2-19-2011)
0.020 Cafe next to iHUB – too slow for google maps (< 50 kbps) at 3pm on 2-08-2011
0.480 Hong’s Chinese Restaurant (opposite Yaya, 7:39pm 2-23-2011)
0.042 Hotel in Nyeri – 8pm on 2-24-2011 (via Orange modem) – but no dropping from network at least.
0.121 backpackers hostel Jinja – 1:17pm Sunday 2-27-2011
0.715 Home wireless 6pm Mon 3-21-2011
0.034 Kisii Orange modem
0.022 Kisumu Nakumatt town center Cyber cafe (5-5-2011) “Moscom Cyber”
0.161 Safaricom EDGE ideos (tethered to PC via USB) in Kisumu (5-5-2011)
0.410 (Orange modem @ home 11:40am 5-19-2011)
0.678 home 8-27-2011
Overall Orange modem costs: 2850 ksh = 2.5 shillings per MB.
Safaricom SME costs: 7000 ksh per month for unlimited Internet at about 700 kpbs with 90% uptime.