17 August 2017

African Internet Speeds and Volumes Increase but the Bar Just Keeps Getting Higher

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London — Recent data shows African Internet speeds that would have been unthinkable ten years ago. But with the arrival of video content, the bar for the speeds required just keeps slipping beyond reach. A slew of recent data highlights the challenges and the increasing volume of data that Africa's networks are carrying. Russell Southwood picks his way through the numbers.

The World Broadband Speed League is a ranking put together from research carried out by New America's Open Technology Institute, Google Open Source Research and Princeton University's Planet Lab.

Across a large number of countries globally, it measured overall speeds and the time it would take to download a 7.5 GB movie. The tests focused on fixed broadband connections, something Africa does not yet have in any large quantity.

However, when they are tested, they should - all other things network being equal - perform better than their mobile equivalents. Anyone who has used African 4G networks knows that the issue is not that high speeds cannot be achieved but that there is no consistency in the connection speeds. Quality of the connection - with dropped connections - remains a major issue.

The research's press release highlighted that the UK regulator OFCOM believes that 10 mbps is the minimum speed required by users "to fully participate in a digital society." Not one of the African countries measured achieved this benchmark speed. The highest speed achieved globally was in Singapore at 55.13 mbps.

Netflix advises users that they need to have a 0.5 mbps connection and recommend a minimum 1.5 mbps connection from a broadband provider and 3 mbps for SD quality. Other streaming operators have varying advice between 1 mbps and 6 mbps with the upper figure being for HD quality video streaming. So the bar to achieve video streaming is significantly lower than 10 mbps but the connection does have to be solid if you're not to suffer from stalled pictures.

Among the ten countries with the slowest Internet speeds, 6 are African, and of those 6, five are francophone countries:

Benin 0.73 mbps

Congo-B 0.73 mbps

Somalia 0.62 mbps

DRC 0.55 mbps

Burkina Faso 0.49 mbps

Gabon 0.41 mbps

The research also looked at the time it took to download a 7.5 GB film. The ten worst African countries are:

Malawi 18.3 hours

Libya 19.1 hours

Guinea 20.1 hours

Mali 20.1 hours

Benin 23.2 hours

Congo B 23.3 hours

Somalia 27.2 hours

DRC 31.1 hours

Burkina Faso 34.5 hours

Gabon 41.1 hours

Out of these ten countries, 7 are francophone. Why does that matter? Because it's a clear sign that neither Governments nor regulators (if they have any independent powers) in many francophone countries have achieved the same speed uplifts found elsewhere in Anglophone countries. The exceptions are Cote d'Ivoire and Senegal.

One of the tragedies within this list is DRC. It is now connected to an international landing station and has a fibre linking it to the capital Kinshasa. But because the incumbent OCPT that operates the link to the capital is incompetent, there is a very low percentage of effective uptime. Indeed in the capital, satellite remains a significant technology for data connectivity in and out of the capital.

The Netflix ISP Speed Index is a measure of prime time Netflix performance on a particular internet service provider, and not a measure of overall performance for other services or data that may travel across the ISP network.

In July Netflix added South Africa to the countries it includes in its analysis. In its debut listing, South Africa was marked 54th out of the 59 countries in the list. In terms of individual providers, Cool Ideas was the fastest at 3.73 mbps and Neotel the lowest at 1.57 mbps.

On the volume of data side, an interesting IXP stat emerged this week. IXP data stats are important as - from talking to African IXPs - it emerges that the majority of the data exchanged is now for You Tube. Angola Cables runs the Angola IXP and announced that it had a peak of 10.8 GB volume of data exchanged, making it the third largest IXP in Sub-Saharan Africa.

IXPN in Nigeria told me in February 2017 that at 20 GB it was the second largest IXP. The number one spot goes to South Africa's NAPAfrica (part of Teraco) with 170 GBs of traffic exchanged.

So far African regulators have tended to focus on Quality of Service issues for voice. But data use is now at the sort of levels that quality of service and price need to be issues that are tackled. African regulators need to start checking both the speed and quality of internet services and driving a process of improving both. The days of saying 'This is Africa' and sighing should soon be over.

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