Tag Archives: Zambia

The challenges of internet in Zambia

I’ve done my first full day of work in Zambia now, and I’m starting to get an appreciation of the unique challenges of running an ISP in an under-developed country. The technology within the country is good (WIMAX is pretty well-developed, and there’s good Wi-Fi coverage) but the difficulty is getting data in from outside the country.

Despite the arrival of fibre connections to the outside world in recent months, satellite is still the most cost-effective means of getting ISP traffic across the border. This is mostly because satellite bandwidth can be purchased in simplex, while buying fibre bandwidth involves paying for a massively under-utilised outbound connection. Obviously the satellite connection boosts the latency, so there’s a lot of trouble doing QoS so that customers who need the latency guarantees get routed to fibre.

The fact that satellite bandwidth is competetive at all should immediately tell you that bandwidth is a significant cost to the business. The economics of selling to a market of relatively poor people don’t stack if you have to buy relatively expensive bandwidth to serve them at a ratio of anything like 1:1. Caching and mirroring would seem to help, but it isn’t 1997 any more: most of what people do on the web isn’t static. You can’t cache Facebook. Even seemingly static pages often have enough dynamic content that you can’t reliably cache them. Mirroring the likes of Google search and YouTube might help, but you can’t get far without negotiating with the big boys, and they may not have time for such a small market.

Traffic shaping is another major opportunity to save bandwidth. No matter how unpopular the idea might be with Californian Slashdotters, in these circumstances the only alternative to an ISP that attempts to prioritise email over bittorrent at peak times is an ISP that goes bust and provides no service at all.

First impressions of Zambia

I’ve noticed that while city centres are the public face of the region, and airports are steel-and-glass monuments to cultural homogeneity, the surroundings as you travel from airport to city often gives an insight into what lies below the surface. New York is seedy, Paris is over-commercialised, Miami is pretty but vacuous, and London is depressing and impersonal.

Judged by this standard, Zambia fares quite well. The land is flat, dry, and under-developed, but it has a genuineness about it that immediately appeals. When I last came a few years ago, the most striking sight was of people walking alongside the road carrying sacks on their heads. It seemed to me that there were fewer of them this time round, and more people transporting goods by bicycle.

Apparently a cyclist transporting 4 large sacks of charcoal might earn 10,000 kwacha for a day’s effort in the hot sun. That would just about buy a sliced loaf in the supermarket we frequent.

Online check-in is a farce

I’m a nervous traveller at the best of times, so by the time I turned up at the airport to fly to Zambia I was already wishing that fate would intervene in some non-fatal way to prevent me from having to go. As it happens, I almost got my wish.

The problem started when we got to the bag drop desk (having “checked in” online, whatever that means, the previous night). It turns out that British Airways attempt to enforce entry visa requirements at the home end of the journey, and won’t let anyone on the plane who doesn’t meet visa requirements. This makes sense, since it’s a waste of time and jet fuel to take someone halfway round the world just to find that they can’t enter the country.

Unfortunately BA don’t apply the Zambian visa rules, they apply their approximation of the Zambian visa rules, and it turns out we’re an edge case. In particular, in BA’s version of things you can’t go unless you have a return flight booked within 90 days. This makes no sense at all in practice, since we were travelling on a business visa, and could only get a 30-day initial allowance anyway (to be extended later). In BA’s version of events, travelling on a 30-day visa with an 89-day return date is OK, while using the same visa with a 110-day return date is forbidden.

This seems like another case of bugs in real world rules to me. The BA staff at Heathrow had clear instructions, which they followed to the letter. They were courteous and understanding, but the fault didn’t lie with them. The rules are, to stretch an analogy, written to ROM. In the end, we did what any programmer would recognise as a workaround: changed our return flight to an earlier date, flew, then changed it back.

Which brings me to my related complaint: what exactly was the point of “checking in” online the night before if it didn’t ensure we were cleared to fly? As far as I can tell, online checkin consists of nothing more than allocating your seat number and asking security questions, which get asked again anyway. The seat number is sometimes changed later at the whim of the airline as well. In terms of seat allocation, it’s turned an orderly process of arriving at the airport early to ensure you get your preferred seat into a competition to see who can get to an internet terminal closest (to the second) to 24 hours before the flight is scheduled. I was delayed 20 minutes because BA’s mobile web site was either broken or just not implemented, by which time half the plane was already full. What exactly does this online bun-fight achieve?

But enough of the whingeing. We made it here on schedule, and we’re settled into our new house. It’s much harder to pity yourself when you see the conditions many Zambians live in, but that’s a topic for another post.