Across the digital divide: Winston the homing pigeon beats ADSL

Last week the Web was all a-twitter in South Africa, as a call centre company pitted a homing pigeon against the country’s largest telecommunications provider, the parastatal Telkom. The feathers flew as Winston, the pigeon, carried 4GB of data on a memory card clipped to his leg approximately 70km, from Durban to Howick, while at the same time, employees attempted to transfer the same amount of data using Telkom’s ADSL line.

Winston won by an embarrassing margin: the total time taken for the uploading, transporting and downloading of the data using pigeon-power was two hours, six minutes and 57 seconds, by which time only 4% of the data had crawled across Telkom’s ADSL line. Although the whole event was streamed live, many South Africans were unable to watch the spectacle due to… you’ve guessed it… inadequate bandwidth. The twittersphere, however, was alive and well, reportedly even including some tweets from Winston himself.

Considering that South Africa is renowned for its relatively well-developed infrastructure in Sub-Saharan Africa, this story is cause for concern for those of us involved in global e-learning activities. Happily though, Winston is not alone in providing competition for Telkom. Over the last few years, a privately funded, largely African-owned company named Seacom has been at work in the region, installing a massive network of undersea fibre-optic cables aimed at enabling a high-speed broadband connection between South Africa, countries in east Africa, and the rest of the world via India and Europe. Seacom’s landing port in South Africa is operated by a company called Neotel, which boasts the first ‘Telkom-free’, truly high-speed internet connection, at affordable rates, as its service for South African consumers.

Countries in east Africa, meanwhile, have been preparing the way for a dramatic socio-economic shift resulting from the improved connectivity: according to The Economist, Rwanda is offering concessions to software companies setting up there, and Kenya has abolished sales tax on computers, along with several other incentives to kick-start online initiatives.

Does this mean that Winston may soon be allowed to retire? Now that would be something to tweet about.

By Gabi Witthaus

Mobile thoughts

I was astonished when I read in the Commonwealth of Learning’s ‘Connections’ news sheet that “two-thirds of mobile phone subscribers live in the developing world, with subscriptions in Africa growing fastest.” What immense opportunities for socialisation and mobile learning! I’m sure you agree, Dick Ng’ambi (at the University of Cape Town).

Then I noticed that the Learning Lab at Wolverhampton University is holding a symposium in Telford, Oct 14-15, for those just starting to do research in mobile learning (Mobile Learning Early Researcher Symposium <>). Yes, we do need more research into what is feasible in using mobile phones in this way.

Learning by ear

An older technology still offers much to learners who are mobile: a distance-education programme delivered by radio, Learning by Ear <>, is reaching out to a potential African audience of more than 33 million people. The productions are based around ten key themes, including: globalisation in Africa, environment, women and girls in Africa, health issues, political participation, and computer and Internet technology. The programme’s popularity lies in its broadcasts of true-to-life stories on these themes, whether as features, interviews or even soaps.

New for old?

But what if some kids swap their iPod or MP3 player for an old Walkman <>?  Thirteen-year-old Scott Campbell swapped for a week, discovering: “As I boarded the school bus, I was greeted with laughter”; “I mistook the metal/normal switch on the Walkman for a genre-specific equaliser, but later I discovered that it was used to switch between different types of cassette”; and “It took me three days to figure out that there was another side to the tape.”

The Tablet, not the Pill

Is Steve Jobs about to launch the Apple Tablet (The Independent, August 26, 2009)? If so, will it be able to serve mobile learners as a phone, a radio and an MP3 or MP4 player? As well as doing everything else we wish for in mobile learning? What an opportunity for creativity!

David Hawkridge

Podcasting with Google Android phones in rural Africa…

We are working with the Royal Veterinary College (RVC) in London on an exciting project to investigate how podcasting technology can be used to improve the veterinary and farming practices in rural Africa. The project leader is Nick Short at RVC, and although the project is only in its initial phase, I thought I should share this exciting news.

RVC has been working quite closely with Google and their Android platform to develop a device that can be used both as a surveillance tool and an ‘information source’ in rural Africa. The idea is to record podcasts on the farm and in the village straight onto large memory cards on the phone and to play back from the phone and distribute through other means such as iTunes U and various internet services. Podcasting technology has the advantage over other means of information gathering and delivery in countries and contexts where the literacy rate is low and where many languages are spoken. As an audio (and as video in the case of video podcasts) medium, podcasting can indeed benefit from a rich diversity of local languages.

As I write this, a group of Vet students and staff from RVC are on location in Zanzibar planning their podcast recordings with livestock farmers.

Watch this space for an update on the project.

Nick and I thought we could do with an animal name for the project! Any ideas please? …email me at

Palitha Edirisingha
27 August 2009

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