The Prodigal Writer

JANUARY 19, 2019

South African Internet

I think I’ve talked before about difficulties we have with the internet, such as not being able to get online, slow data transfer (can’t send pictures), dropping calls on Skype etc. It all sounds hard to believe but it’s a daily annoyance. Herewith I compare how the internet works in the US with how it’s done here.

US or South Africa, mobile devices:

If you have an iPhone or iPad or other mobile device, you can tap into the internet just like you do in Portland. Go out to a restaurant or coffee shop, get their password and a drink, log onto their internet and you’re good to hang and check messages or whatever until they kick you out. 

US, residence:

Pick internet service provider for your house

Pick data plan

Put it on automatic monthly payment

South Africa, residence:

There are two primary internet providers in South Africa – Vodacom and MTN – and they’re equally costly and unreliable. We chose MTN, not because it’s particularly better than Vodacom but because it’s the only one with a presence in little Port Alfred.

At our residence the landlady provides us with a router, but she doesn’t pay for the service. We pay for the internet service that comes through it for reasons that will become obvious. The router has a chip in it onto which we can load airtime. This is where things get hairy.

Airtime is paid for in discrete parcels, such as 10, 20, or 30 gigabytes of data. How long that lasts is dependent on how much one uses the internet and whether one is downloading data in large or small blocks. Think of filling up a tank with data instead of water. Each time you open the faucet you’re draining out data. So, checking and sending messages is like opening the faucet a little. Reading online news stories is like opening the faucet a little more. Downloading videos or sending pictures is like turning the faucet to full open.

The tank full of gigabytes therefore gets drained out over time, and once it is empty you have to buy more data and fill up the tank again. Problem is, there isn’t any gauge to show how much is left in the tank so you’ll know when you’re going to be cut off. The only indicator is a bright yellow warning page that suddenly appears on your screen and says hey, you’re empty. When this happens you curse, shut down the computer, hop in the car and drive to the nearest MTN outlet to purchase another package of data. This becomes a problem if you’re many miles away from an outlet, it’s after 5:00, or it’s the weekend. I know what you’re thinking: can’t I just call the company and buy more air time? Nope. And there isn’t any data plan that has unlimited data, so it’s a trip to the fucking store every time you run out.

When you do get to the store you stand in line with all the other poor schmucks who have just run out data in the middle of downloading porn. You hand the clerk your credit card and indicate how much data you want to pay for (did I mention it is ungodly expensive?) Once the transaction goes through and your credit card is charged, you are handed a slip of paper with a long series of numbers on it. You take the slip home and punch the numbers into a keypad on your router. These numbers then get transmitted to the mother ship who knows where and your tank is once again filled.

One obvious way around this mishegos would be to buy larger blocks of data. The providers figured that one out long ago. Say you get 40 gigs of data and at the end of the month you’ve used 30. You lose the gigs you haven’t used because they’re only good for a month. No, they don’t roll over. They’re just gone and so is your money.

A rational person looks at this system in awe and despair because it seems so god damn inefficient. But that’s the whole point. It provides make-work employment for the otherwise unemployed. The inefficiencies are not a bug, they’re a feature. The system is designed to be confusing and wasteful; that way the maximum amount of money can be skimmed off. It would be easy to change the structure but making it more efficient would cut into profits. The internet situation is like South African government in microcosm, and neither it nor any other facet of the country is going to change any time soon.

2 thoughts on “The Prodigal Writer

  1. Douglas MacGregor May 6, 2019 at 2:05 am Reply

    Ha! I live in a small town in Texas (Corsicana) and I dream of having South African Internet! My Internet here in Corsicana is so slow it take 15 minutes to download about 30 emails. And it is not constant, sometimes it’s working and other times it takes forever. When it is working it is slower than my Internet in South Africa.
    As for making Skype calls to my family and friends in South Africa, forget it! My download speed may be okay to hear them speak but my upload speed is so slow they cannot hear me at all.
    So I try connecting via my phone and use my phone data. Only trouble is ATT&T recognizes my call is an international VOIP call using their data so they charge me a premium for that data, so a Skype call can cost me $30! That’s nearly 3 hours of work for me after tax so as you can imagine I only Skype in emergencies. (I never got charged a premium in South Africa when I made International VOIP calls and used to spend hours a month to all family and family scattered around the globe.)
    It seems there are different types of Internet depending whether you live in a cosmopolitan or rural area. I work in Office Depot here in Corsicana so I hear about them complaining about Internet connectivity.
    My plan in South Africa was a DSL plan, we had plenty speed for my wife and I to stream videos to our separate laptops with no quality degradation. We hardly even reached our cap. I comment to my friends that I dream of days when I could have third world Internet like South Africa!
    I do appreciate there are differences between airtime and DSL in both countries, seems like we are both frustrated with what we are not used to.
    It also emphasizes how dependent we are on the Internet; no longer a privilege but more an expected right!
    Footnote: Could not post this originally as my Internet fell over. Had to retry a few times by going to Settings/Network/Troubleshoot. Know how to do this blindfold as I do it many times an hour. My computer cannot handle the slow connectivity speed.


    • mikedescamp May 6, 2019 at 3:34 am Reply

      Hola Douglas,
      Good to hear from you, man, and happy belated birthday.


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