Wi-Fi hot-spots and 3G coverage are the main ways that Africans get the Internet. Being charitable, quality of service and price are very variable.
A new Lithuanian start-up Rotten Wi-Fi has set out to drive improvements in these two areas using consumer testing and feedback. Russell Southwood spoke to its co-founder Arturas Jonkus.
Both free and paid Wi-Fi hot-spots are a source of constant frustration in Africa. There is no real relationship between what you do or don’t pay and quality. As almost everywhere in Africa, those providing the hot-spots under-specify the bandwidth needed.
If I’m in a hotel, the other villain I always visualize is an American who hasn’t been to Africa before who has decided to download a video. I’ve even been in a paid hot-spot in a South African hotel where they banned access to social media: you’re paying for the bandwidth and they won’t let you use it, go figure. And they don’t tell you…
Then there’s a well-known US hotel chain in Africa that charges outrageous prices. I complained volubly on Twitter and now almost the first words they greet me with are that my Wi-Fi will be free. Lesson: Don’t accept that things have to be the way they are.
But if Wi-Fi hot-spots can be frustrating, this is as nothing compared to the frustrations of 3G coverage. This can go from acceptable to unusable in 20 seconds and is not designed for heavier uses like viewing YouTube. The networks have not really been designed for anything more than e-mail and the provisioning at many base stations means they overload at quite a low point.
To be fair, this is a tale that has many villains. A hot-spot provider can offer a Wi-Fi hot-spot but only guess what the maximum number of people using it will be or what volume of data they will use. But I don’t think that it’s hard to guess that most African providers don’t provide much “head-room” for demand spikes. The Star Alliance lounge in Lagos airport sets one of the lowest standards I have come across and reflects badly on its brand.
Then there are the expectations: if I have to stay at an expensive hotel, I expect their Wi-Fi to work better than a more down-market hotel. Sometimes it works that way. In Cameroon I once moved from the latter to the former because the cheaper hotel insisted that the Wi-Fi wasn’t working because of “the rain”.
So why was it working in the more expensive hotel? But in another country, there is a cheaper hotel that provides better Wi-Fi than the international chains.
The idea for Rotten WiFI came out of an entrepreneurs’ event the founders were at in Ireland where the Wi-Fi didn’t work:” Nobody was able to pitch their projects by showing things on Internet. So I thought what can we do about that?”
For a long time, it’s been possible to test the speed of your up and down links at home with a simple web page but nothing similar existed for Wi-Fi hot-spots:”We wanted to be able to measure the technical parameters and how satisfied people are. 2Mbps or 10Mbps don’t really mean anything and you’ll have different needs at different times.”
“We only really think about Wi-Fi when there is no Wi-Fi. So we’re trying to make it possible for people getting bad service to express themselves. They can share how they feel about connections and share that information with providers.”
The app has had 60,000 downloads and a similar amount of tested sites in 1 month:”It means you can download the app before you start your journey and look at where there are hot-spots and where you can find reliable Wi-Fi.”
The app tests the speed in the Hot-Spot (or the 3G coverage) and you give it a satisfaction rating:”It’s interesting because in different cities, different speeds are evaluated differently but speed is the common thread. In one city, 1 mbps will get 7-8 points and 40Mbps will get 9 points.” Where it gets multiple download data points from a location, it will average them out.
Downloads of the app are not just from the developed world. Countries by order of download are as follows: USA (12% of total); Ecuador, Phillipines, Lithuania, Armenia, Mexico, Venezuela and Colombia.
The app is available on iOS through the Apple app store and by the end of the month there will be a web application that will work on both Mac and Windows PCs. By June, there will also be an app in the Android store.
The business model is to work providing aggregated anonymised data to telecoms and hotel companies on both download speeds and customer satisfaction. It also wants to do best and worst Wi-Fi rankings. It also can test 3G coverage and do the same kind of things. This product is ideal for Africa as it can identify where poor coverage is and draw attention to it.
So far African regulators have tended to focus on Quality of Service issues for voice. (see Ghana story on QoS in Telecoms News) This is understandable because there are many issues and it is the most widely used service.
You will notice that it is almost always the providers who come out worst in this testing that argue that the tests are not representative. But the determined regulators have stuck with it and in West Africa there have been fines.
Wireless data use is now at the sort of levels that quality of service and price need to be an issue that is tackled. African regulators need to recommend and promote software of this kind. They also need to start thinking about getting (or encouraging) independent providers to offer comparison sites so that consumers can make informed decisions about which data provider to use.
The good ISPs and mobile operators will leap at the chance to use this kind of information and the good will in time drive out the bad. Too many incumbent mobile operators are adopting a defensive position rather than putting their hands up and making the improvements.
African data consumers are already much better informed than when I started Balancing Act 15 years ago and over the next period will expect a demanding combination of better quality, higher speeds and low prices.