Scott Hanselman

South Africa 2008 - Limited, Ahem, Connectivity

December 11, 2008 Comment on this post [16] Posted in Africa
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imageIt's always a challenge when leaving home to find connectivity. We've got Fiber Optic to the house in the states (20Mbs/20Mbs) and unlimited nu3G tethering via phone while roaming. Even then, there are SO many open WiFi spots in the states, it's easy to get connected when away. Frankly, the only place in the states that has horrific connection speeds are hotels!

Speaking of hotel connectivity, recently in New Zealand was I charged US$25 for 50 megabytes (total transfer!) per day. I wasn't able to even start sync'ing Outlook with that cap.

The last few days here in South Africa I've been trying to figure out how I am/was going to transfer my 100-300 megabyte audio files for the next three weeks of the Hanselminutes podcast.

I went to a local mall and used their internet cafe and while it was reasonably price at 10 Rand (US$1) for 15 minutes, the maximum GET or POST was 2 Megs. I couldn't even download my favorite FTP program, much less upload a few gigs of audio over the next month.

My new friend Mario from the SADeveloper helped me get connected without breaking the bank. We started with a Huawei E220 HSDPA USB Modem. It's a real basic modem, but like most 3G modems, it has the software you need on a flash disk inside the device. You plug it in, it's recognized as a disk. Then you run the setup, and the software handles dialing and connectivity.

But, I've gone too far ahead already. The modem doesn't include a SIM card. It has an empty slot for one on the side. You can get a Vodacom SIM Card for 1 Rand (10 cents US) pretty much anywhere. We got it at a bookstore. Then, we went to a Vodashop and had the guy behind the counter activate the SIM with his phone.

The trick is that you buy minutes then convert the minutes to pay-as-you-go data on a non-contract data plan. You can add minutes two ways. There are some places that can push the minutes into your SIM without a phone which is the situation I'm in. Or, you can use any phone, put your SIM it in and dial *111#. You'll get a menu that will let you purchase data plan megabytes with your minutes. I was able to buy 3 gigabytes of transfer for about US$60. Not cheap, but not oppressively expensive.

I've turned off the Windows Update service as well as images in my browser. I've also switch to mobile versions of some sites like Twitter or CNN, to save bandwidth. Perhaps that's penny-wise, pound-foolish, but that's me.

About Scott

Scott Hanselman is a former professor, former Chief Architect in finance, now speaker, consultant, father, diabetic, and Microsoft employee. He is a failed stand-up comic, a cornrower, and a book author.

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December 11, 2008 14:53
Yeah, the joys of connectivity in RSA, we are very jealous of you Scott. Hopefully it will improve by the time the Soccer World Cup is here in 2010.
December 11, 2008 15:02
Hi Scott

The software that comes with the modem is shockingly awful. If you have been through enough suffering with the software, and feel that there has got to be a better way to connect, you can read further, if not ignore the rest of this post :)

If you have done the initial install of the software, it has the modem drivers installed on your machine. After that you don’t need to open the software in order to connect. You can simply right click on the network icon and select connect to network. You will then be presented with all the Wi-Fi and dialup connection, screen, look for something like HUAWEI3G, or some other dialup connection that you have not created. Using that you can just hit the connect and off you go (the phone number if it asks is *99#).

Thinks to keep in mind in order to make this the least amount of frustrating.

* Use the same usb port, cause if it is a diffrent port it first wants to re-install all the drivers
* After you have plugged it in wait a couple of seconds (like 30 or so). The light flashes with about .5 second delay for about 6-10 times, and then goes solid (either blue or green depending on connection speed) after that it will connect using the dailup connection route.
* If it still does not want to connect, the connection might be pointed to your internal modem, change that on the dailup connection settings
* I normally also change the settings of the dailup connection, to redail automatically if the connection drops.
* If you still not getting joy with uploading of the files, you might try the vpn access point (At the risk of boring you, I am going to leave that out, but will gladly send you a email on how to get it setup if you require it.)

Hope you have an awesome visit, I firmly believe that God was showing off when he made South Africa :)
December 11, 2008 15:15

Speaking of hotel connectivity, recently in New Zealand was I charged US$25 for 50 megabytes (total transfer!) per day. I wasn't able to even start sync'ing Outlook with that cap.

Yup, I feel your pain, being from NZ and having travelled around a fair bit. NZ hotels, not to put a fine point on it, screw their customers something cronic*. In the US it's free, tho the speed is usually pretty low. But atleast it works and it's free.

What I'm STILL surprised about (given I've presented for MS a number of times, including 3 TechEd's in NZ) is that at something like TechEd, there is nothing for the travelling speakers to use - eg, you get in, and they give you a mobile broadband stick to use while you are there. It's never factored in, and it's always a big pain point for the overseas attendees, esp the US ones who are used to having free bandwidth.

To be honest, when I travel now, I disconnect. Roaming charged around Europe are too high for me to pay (it wasn't too bad when I was working for a US multinational, but I'm paying my own now!), and roaming to the US is, well, about as painful as your NZ experience. Just like your RSA passport experience - it's not much fun in the US for non-US people :) If I can't find an access point, I dont bother.

Maybe a disconnect is in order? (tho I am enjoying the RSA posts so far!!) Might drop your blood sugar even more ;-)

* was going to use something strong there, but I'll refrain :)
December 11, 2008 15:16
That brings back some memories. I went to Niger 10 years ago and the Internet pipe for the ENTIRE COUNTRY was 64K. Granted that was 10 years ago, but it was still in the Internet era. I'm sure they have upgraded to a T1 by now. :)
December 11, 2008 16:33
Anyone have any suggestions on connectivity in rural Burkina Faso? :-)

Seriously, my wife and I support an orphanage there, and they have to travel from the village (Yako) to the city (Ougadougou) just to send and receive email. Of course they have very little money, but what is available in a place like that? Satellite?

I'd love to know if anyone has any suggestions out there on connectivity in a situation like that. Even knowing what's available elsewhere in the world allows for dreaming.
December 11, 2008 16:39

Maybe you should have produced the 3 podcasts before you left and released one at a time while you're in Africa. Yes.. easier said than done.
December 11, 2008 16:45
I live in South Africa, the internet here is pretty rubbish, but we learn to deal with it.
Hope you have a good time here, and do spend time in Cape Town. Lots and lots to do and see.
December 11, 2008 18:34
you just freaked the crap out of me caus that is exactly how i connect in Uganda. except for the fact that i am using UTL. have you taken a look at MTN vodacomms rival? thier prices are cheap and though the service is poor for internet in Ug, it must be great in thier home country. with UTL i get to see 7.2MB/s!!! fantastic for Ug i know but for the approx 110 usd i pay monthly, IT HAD BETTER BE GOOD!!!
December 11, 2008 19:17
lol. Welcome to my hell, Scott :) Internet access, like most things in this country, is insanely overpriced (and slow). I'm currently paying Telkom over R400 for a 512 ADSL line and that doesn't include the bandwidth. For an uncapped account you're looking in the range of R1500-R2000 and even then, most ISPs have some or other throttling scheme set up in case you transfer too much in a short period.

I had a fun experience a few months ago that left me without connectivity for about 4 days because I was downloading several "large" (read 200-500mb) files in one go. Thankfully that hasn't happened since, but you get the idea.

Anyway, if you're looking for a cheap data package, I believe Virgin Mobile is currently offering the best rate on 3G bundles. And I agree with Adrian, spend some time in CT, the road works are lovely this time of year and the mountain isn't bad either.
December 11, 2008 21:01
I'd say you're still doing pretty good price wise. I paid AT&T $200 for 200MB of data during a month of backpacking through Europe with my iPhone. I actually switched from TMobile right before I left because TMobile has no fixed international data plans and it would have cost me an arm and a leg to use them internationally. Google maps saved my butt of few times though so I am glad I had access.
December 12, 2008 1:24
You could always fill up 4gb SD cards full of data and mail them to someone that can upload your data for you. 4gb cards are cheap and its fairly inexpensive to snailmail.

Embed a shoppinglist.txt file so whoever gets it can acquire your downloads and send the card back :)

December 12, 2008 3:57
Hi Scott

Living here in NZ I spend $44 a month to get 10Mbs download plus $3 per Gb data. That seems pretty average. The trouble is there's only 4 million people total here. Not a big market and not much real competition. We were paying over $9 a gallon for petrol recently. I think the word I'm looking for is Cartel. Sigh. But can't complain after reading about RSA. It's better in Australia but who'd want to live in a penal colony eh what?

Are you gonna blog what you were up to in NZ? I'm just being nosey now.

Alan Grant
December 12, 2008 10:44
Hi Scott
I am a Vodafone New Zealand customer and I have had some ordeals with that particular peice of software, and the modem firmware, and getting the data pln on it's SIM card activated properly by the vodafone guy. If you like you can read about my experiences here and in the posts that trackback to that entry

On a less complaint-oriented note, I am very much enjoying your Affrica posts.
December 15, 2008 12:44
Ahh, some feedback for the corp guys back in Redmond.
January 07, 2009 9:35
Living in Singapore I'm spoilt (unlimited HSPDA/GRPS and unlimited 100Mbps cable for ~SG$100 per month), but I feel it whenever I go home to Australia. Its a big place, but Telstra and Optus (the dominant carriers) rip people off for 'net access - I especially have to remember to turn my mobile sync to manual, otherwise a few days of data costs A$150+.
February 06, 2009 17:54
Mobile Broadband Ready notebooks help a lot. You just place the SIM card somewhere under the battery (eg. Latitude D630).

I just blogged about the same thing. But I didn't have connectivity problems in both the outskirts of JHB and CPT. I was rather surprised about the pricing: In a country where half of its citizens do not even have a bank account, probably the poor will have to cope with prepaid SIMs instead of advantageous broadband contracts, I find the pricing discriminatory... quite frankly.

But you've seen the situation for yourself.

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed herein are my own personal opinions and do not represent my employer's view in any way.