a week in wireless


Broadband cold turkey

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In the name of variety the Informer reports from Cape Town, South Africa this week. It’s hard to think of a location that would contrast more with last week’s venue – Stockholm – than Cape Town, but they do have a few things in common. They’re both coastal, cultured and cosmopolitan, but the Informer must report that a beer here is a tenth of the price than it is in Sweden.

Maybe that explains why getting internet access is such an adventure. Cape Town features a network of wifi hotspots named Always On. While there’s no evidence that the owners of this service intended its name to be ironic, the experience on the ground falls somewhat short of the consistency implied.

Hopes are cruelly raised by the presence of unsecured wifi hotspots in most public locations around the city, but connecting to one of them is just the start of the process. There then follows a Byzantine sequence of logins before the Holy Grail of internet connectivity is reached. To some extent this is expected when exploiting the freemium model, as free lunches are no more readily available here than in the UK, but even paid-for wifi often involves more hoop-jumping than the working dog’s final at Crufts.

Having an internet connection has become a latter-day, benign addiction. After sitting on a plane for half a day, getting online takes priority over smoking, drinking or even eating. The craving for email, social media, IM clients, sports results, and even checking the performance of your fantasy football team takes on a physical urgency, with accompanying anxiety-attacks, cold sweats and willingness to sacrifice anything for a fix.

So it’s hard not to suspect wanton cruelty, bordering on sadism, when the culmination of the torturous login process yields an internet connection less reliable than the weather. And it should be noted that on at least one occasion the Informer sauntered casually out into the Cape Town sun, only to arrive at a nearby destination drenched and shivering, having been ambushed by a guerrilla rainstorm of biblical proportions en route.

This challenging internet environment also has social costs. Staring at the on-screen swirly thing that accompanies apps such as Facebook when they’re attempting to refresh becomes an obsession that completely precludes any dialogue more articulate than cursory grunts and nods. Conversely, thrusting your freshly-updated social media into the face of a friend still struggling to get online often leads to violence.

The flip side of all this is to make people pathetically grateful when they do get online and remind us how lucky we are to be able to take a reliable internet connection more or less for granted. Travelling outside Europe the cost of roaming is prohibitive, so sometimes you just have to cope without the internet, which is probably no bad thing for our atrophying social skills.

The cost of roaming was one of many fascinating talking points at the AfricaCom event, which the Informer attended while in Cape Town. And it must be noted that the wifi at the Cape Town International Convention Centre was of a conspicuously higher grade.

The African telecoms industry has a number of distinct characteristics, including relatively limited fixed-line infrastructure and relatively low average disposable income. This makes mobile networks even more important here and furthermore operators are, if anything, even more receptive to new technologies such as NFV, which promise to help them use their kit even more efficiently.

And with the cost of smartphones continuing to come down, there is a massive potential digital economy still untapped in Africa. This is not lost on mobile platform players such as Microsoft and Mozilla, who have realised that a smartphone costing under $50 will offer a great opportunity to acquire customers who may be entering the digital economy for the first time.

The Informer can heartily recommend a visit to Cape Town, not just for the beautiful setting, vibrant culture and excellent food, but for the chance to detox from the internet from time to time, whether you want to or not.

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