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

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