18 May 2011

Sungura na Kobe - Up-country internet speeds in "ICT-Hub" Tanzania

Sungura na Kobe, aka TTCL na Voda
An old Greek fairytale tells of the hare (sungura) and the tortoise (kobe) having a race. The hare runs back and forth, teasing the tortoise about how easy the win will be. Eventually the hare is so far ahead that it stops for a rest and falls asleep. When the hare wakes up, it finds that the tortoise has already finished.

I often have this story in mind when trying to connect to the internet here in Njombe. We have 2 main options - TTCL "broadband" and Vodacom "mobile broadband" (there are other mobile networks providing internet access as well, but Voda stands out well above the others).

The hare in this case is definitely TTCL. Our connection speeds with them have reached as high as 500KB per second, but the line has a habit of going to sleep during working hours. Most days, between 8am and 5pm the connection is effectively unusable, it can take half an hour to download a single email with no attachments, an hour to log in to wordpress. Evenings and weekends the connection is great, but what use is that to a busy office?

Which leaves Vodacom as the tortoise, slow but reliable. Speeds rarely get above around 10KB per second, but that's just about enough for most regular office work, so long as you have nothing too urgent or data-heavy to do. We've managed to send a 30MB newspaper by email to the printers this way, but it took about 3 hours. Uploading last week's 70MB video took about 10 minutes, because it was done on TTCL after office hours.

We've found some ways around this, hopping from sungura to kobe and back according to the time of day and the urgency of work, and working unusual office hours on occasions - back to the office after dinner, etc. But it's an expensive solution, (if you can call it a solution), as well as being inefficient and inconvenient.

We've spent a lot of time and effort trying to find a solution to this problem. TTCL engineers have been to check our system several times (they even tried to blame our perfectly good wireless router), with no success. They recommended we go for a dedicated bandwidth connection (apparently very reliable, certainly expensive). And then when we called them to take them up on that suggestion, they said it wasn't possible because the line between Njombe and Makambako was too congested. (Makambako is our nearest connection to the fibre optic cable that makes up the national backbone, which hasn't yet reached Njombe - see map.)

How's your Chinese? The National ICT Backbone - click to enlarge.
Black and Red lines and already completed, pink due for completion in 2011.
Voda don't have 3G network capability in Njombe, nor do any of the other mobile networks. Why not? When we spoke to Voda staff in Dar they said it was because they too depend on the TTCL cable between Makambako and Njombe.

The Chinese firm that's laying the fibre optic cables along Tanzania's main highways has been very active around Njombe recently. The line between Makambako and Njombe is laid, as is the line between Njombe and Songea further south. We were told it should be switched on in July. But that's in doubt as the 3km section through Njombe town itself has yet to be laid, held up by an unresolved dispute between the Town Council and property owners along the main road.

And finally, if this seemingly well-informed blogpost is to be believed (which some of the comments doubt but this thesis supports), even connecting the fibre-optic cable to Njombe will not be the end of the problems. If TTCL continue to have such monopoly power over the fibre-optic cable, (and apparently to abuse it), we can expect slow speeds and high prices to continue for some time yet.

Tanzania apparently aspires to become a "regional ICT Hub" (and here). But the evidence on the ground suggests we have a very long way to go before that will be the case.