26 November 2012

Rwanda: High-Speed Internet Still Very Limited, Improvement in Sight

When Orinfor tweeted the latest statistics from Ookla's NetIndex that "Rwanda ranks the African country with a very high-speed Internet connection", Dustin Ishimwe, a student at Kicukiro College of Technology, immediately replied with a blunt "Never!"

"If this is true, I don't know who benefits from it. For instance, I'm a student at university, but it's been a month or so without the Internet," he told The Rwanda Focus via Twitter. "We regularly carry out assignments and submit them via e-mail; you can now imagine how frustrating this is."

For him, internet service providers (ISPs) offer a very poor service. "Ever since last year, modems are too slow to the extent that you can even run out of a bundle you purchased without a network signal. It's such a shame. Don't bother trying them during the rainy season."

According to NetIndex, Rwanda has in the last week displaced Ghana to become the country with the fastest broadband Internet speed in the continent. According to the latest tests, Rwanda currently has download speeds of up to 7.28 Mbps from 3.28 Mbps six months ago, ranking it 65th in the world. The country is followed by Libya with 5.12 Mbps and Ethiopia with 4.82 Mbps.

"I'd rank it the worst in the whole world, sorry to be so blunt, but that's my opinion," a frustrated Ishimwe wrote.

A few years ago, the governement heavily invested in the fiber-optic network (Kigali Metropolitan Network, or KMN) that spans across Kigali City interconnecting all government institutions using a high-capacity backbone technology.

It has also financed the construction of another fiber-optic network (National Backbone, or NBB), that physically links 226 sites distributed in all of Rwanda's 30 districts and all border points and interconnects them with the government sites connected to the KMN. Now the two fiber-optic networks are managed by a private company, Broadband Systems Corporation (BSC), since August 2011. KMN and NBB are no longer exclusively for the government; BSC sells this fastest broadband Internet connection to businesses and individuals as well.

So, how does a person get access to the broadband connection? It's through WiBro, the solution to provide wireless broadband to homes. A user needs to buy a special modem, or router, from BSC to be able to get connected to WiBro. The problem, though, is that this wireless high-speed Internet is nearly nowhere accessible. It's available only in a handful select spots of the city and hasn't been expanded ever since its introduction last year.

Yet it's these hotspots NetIndex referred to when it ranked Rwanda number one in Africa. No doubt, when you're within their reach, BSC's fiber-optic broadband connection is undoubtedly the fastest. Those who can capture its signal call it "cool" and are happy with its "more than enough bandwidth."

But with the current WiBro coverage the vast majority of the citizenry is left in the cold. "I already have a good plan from one of the ISPs; I would like to shift to WiBro but am held off because its coverage is still poor," says Emile Niyibizi, computer science lecturer at ULK.

Focus on fiber

BSC is aware of this problem, and according to its marketing manager Jolly Igoma there is a good reason why so far they haven't concentrated so much on increasing the access points.

"A particular focus during this year has been to continuously extend our fiber infrastructure and to acquire more Internet bandwidth because it is one of the key prerequisites for expanding wireless broadband services including Wibro," she explains. "We are planning to expand more wireless broadband services such as Wibro as well as other wireless technologies and fiber to reach many more users in Kigali and districts next year. Some of this wireless expansion will be done directly by BSC but mainly in collaboration with other ISPs."

Another complaint is that currently WiBro is not very cheap. BSC's most affordable device is a USB modem that goes for a subscription of Frw 20,000 per month. But there's a problem: this modem doesn't support all major operating systems - it only works on Windows, not OS X and Linux.

"This isn't serious at all, I wonder what keeps them from bringing modems that support all the platforms," says Ibrahim Rugamba, who long ago switched from Windows to Linux for the sake of "virus-free" environment.

For Windows too, not all platforms are supported. WiBro will work only on 32-bit Windows; if you happen to have 64-bit, you're on your own to find a driver. (32-bit and 64-bit refer to the way a computer's processor handles information, with the latter being more efficient; ed.). Some geeky customers have however found a way to get around the incompatibility issue. Hervé Murenzi, a resident of Nyabugogo where there's a strong WiBro signal, used a program called VMare Fusion to run Windows XP on his MacBook Air, allowing him to still use the BSC modem. But they can't expect every customer to be a geek," he points out.

BSC's arketing manager Igoma recognizes that the modem only works on Windows. "The manufacturers of Wibro, which is a technology from the South-Korean industry, made a choice of promoting the usage of Wibro Egg (Wi-Fi Router) which is operating system independent and can be used with multiple devices that mostly have Wi-Fi (laptops, smart phones, pads, etc.)," she remarks. "Our current strategy is to also use Wibro Egg which are device-independent and multi-user."

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