African Internet Case Study

It's hard to imagine how things can be so radically different in Africa from the USA until one has spent some time there.  Here I have outlined a real world comparison about the costs and availability of Internet access between Chad, Africa and our current home in Waxhaw, NC USA.

Internet access for Chad, Africa:
In our 2012 Africa IT Discovery meetings we were discussing the need to get Internet access for one of our locations in Chad, Africa. There is a government licensing fee of $10,000 (US) per year to have the type of satellite Internet connection we need. Other less costly options for Internet access are still not available in that part of Chad. The $10,000 cost is just a license fee, and only makes it “approved” to use this Internet access. On top of that there is a monthly data fee from the satellite Internet vendor of at least $800 per month which covers the actual use of the system, and that is for a very limited connection. The satellite equipment has a one-time cost to purchase of about $6,000. Fortunately, we are investigating the possibility of taking some used satellite equipment from Nairobi to Chad, since Nairobi now has a more reliable fiber-optic Internet connection.

Here are the speed and cost numbers for the satellite Internet connection in Chad:
Download speed:    1,024 kilobits per second
Upload speed:        256 kilobits per second
Shared connection ratio 10:1 (in satellite terms, this is called the “contention ratio” and it is similar to having 10 people using one telephone party line.)
Worst case throughput speed based on the above ratio: 100 kilobits download, 25 kilobits upload (these are the expected normal speeds during business hours when the satellite system is busy with all its African customers.)
Monthly cost including data fee and annual government fee: $1,633.

Ok, for those of you who are not network engineers, this is similar to having a DIAL-UP modem connection at your home in the USA which costs over $1,600 per MONTH! Technically this would have twice the download speed of a dial-up connection, but about the same upload speed. Other than the enormous cost, the other factor is that this Internet connection would be shared in the office with 25 or more computers! Can you imagine sharing a single home dial-up connection with 25 computers?

This is life in many parts of Africa – oh yeah, and the power sporadically goes out randomly throughout the day for an unknown amount of time, so you need a huge generator to keep the computers, network, and satellite system running smoothly, add about $20,000 more for that, plus the ongoing fuel and maintenance costs.

Internet access for Waxhaw, NC USA:
The church where Krista and I attend is in the process of upgrading their Internet connection, so that they can stream video of live church services over the web, and store that video on a website where church members can view the services later. We already have an Internet connection, but it’s not fast enough to upload live video at good quality. One of our members was investigating the cost of alternative Internet connections for the church and this was taking place during my trip to Kenya. I received his email listing his findings and the costs on the same day that we were discussing the cost issues for Chad, Africa, so this example really stood out to me!

Here are the speed and cost numbers for the cable Internet connection that we selected in Waxhaw:
Download speed:    51,200 kilobits per second (this is usually listed in megabits, 1 megabit = 1024 kilobits; I converted to kilobits here for an apples-to-apples comparison)
Upload speed:        51,200 kilobits per second (this is a business class cable connection, so the upload and download speeds are equal in this case.)
Shared connection ratio ?? (Cable connections, like satellite connections or party lines, are shared by a number of customers on the same cable line. But since this is a business class cable, and most businesses in the area are not open on Sunday mornings when the church will be streaming their video, I expect that we will have most of the cable to ourselves.)
Expected throughput speed: 51,200 kilobits download, 51,200 kilobits upload.  This is 512 x faster download speed than Africa, 2,048 x faster upload speed!
Monthly cost including data fee and annual government fee: $100 (that is a very good price, even in the USA, by the way!)

The Bottom Line:
We can get Internet access in the USA (at least at our church now) that is over 500 X faster than Africa for 1/16 of the cost!

It is not technically feasible to have this speed of Internet connection via satellite in Africa, but if it were then at the current rates in Chad it would cost over $410,000 per MONTH to have what we are paying $100 per month for here in the USA. Actually there would be some sort of discounted rate for the higher usage, like what CNN uses to send live video from remote places, but it would still be extremely expensive!

This is what I mean when I say that the rate of technology acceleration in many developed parts of the world is exponentially outpacing the rate in most African third-world countries.

Things are improving there, but very slowly compared to other places, and Internet access is becoming a critical piece of Bible translation to speed up the process.

There ARE some parts of Africa that are now getting better Internet access, so the entire continent is not in peril. Parts of South Africa have reasonable Internet access, still slower and more expensive than in the USA, but it’s pretty good. Nairobi Kenya now has fiber-optic Internet service. It’s pricey and not as reliable from day-to-day as in the USA, but it is a huge improvement over their former satellite Internet, which was similar to what I described for Chad, but without the $10,000 annual government license cost.

Basically the countries on the outer coasts of Africa are starting to see improvements because of a number of undersea fiber-optic cables that are now coming on-shore. But for the inner countries in Africa, it may be years before these more reliable and cheaper options reach them. Instead Internet access for use by individuals is spreading across Africa through cellular data – either via smart phones or cellular modems. It is much slower than fiber or cable Internet, but is fairly inexpensive. The biggest challenge with cellular data seems to be that the vendors oversell their service area, so the speed is pretty slow, or maybe it doesn’t work at all sometimes, because too many customers are using the system at the same time.

Thankfully the Lord knows about all these things, and His work is progressing in spite of challenges! Pray that we will be able to use new technology as it becomes available to further the pace of Bible translation for those who still need it!