God may live in Africa but the internet doesn’t

Chances are that you think your internet connection is slow. This feeling is stronger if you’ve spent some time in places like the US, UK, Germany or South Korea.

Of course it might just be that your service provider provides crappy internet or the signal is weak where you live or maybe you are on the lowest priced data plan but the depressing (or perhaps comforting?) fact is this: Wherever you are in Africa the internet is slower than, say, Germany.

There are a number of factors which cause this inequality but possibly the most important is the issue of hosts. Two months ago at Jomo Kenyatta International Airport a Google employee, one Mr David Weekly, noticed that his internet speed was noticeably slower than what he got when in the US despite the excellent signal. He wrote a “mildly technical” post about it on his Facebook page.

Without getting too technical let me briefly explain what David discovered. When a person goes on the internet, and tries to access Facebook, Twitter or perhaps search for images of Robert Mugabe’s mustache what happens is that a request is send to another computer called a server which stores your favourite videos and, indeed, pictures of Bob’s mustache.

In simple (and very simplistic) terms the data from that host computer is then transferred to your computer’s browser which interprets it and turns it into moving things on your screen. . For a page to fully display a number of trips between your PC and the host where the data is stored  may have to be made.

A simple pingback reveals that it takes over 200 ms for data to travel between my computer and
A simple pingback reveals that it takes over 200 ms for data to travel between my computer and Facebook’s servers. The round the trip time is as much as 300ms.

This delay – termed “latency”- is usually very small because of the incredibly high speeds at which the data is transferred, which while significantly slower than the speed of light, are still very very high. In fact, when a delay is less than 100ms users will feel as if the responses are instant. However if distances are very long the effect becomes noticeable, particularly when you try to load a “big” page. You’ve probably noticed latency when speaking to someone in South Africa over the phone.

The problem here is that most of the data we access is hosted in the US or UK, or other places that are really far away from your flat, local internet cafe or the village where I grew up. So it obviously takes less time for a person in London to access a webpage hosted in London than it takes me to access the same page from here.

One way of solving this problem is for huge internet companies like Facebook and Google to put some of their servers in Africa. This would help but the companies themselves have no economic incentive to do so because only a tiny fraction- about 3%- of the world’s internet traffic is from Africa.

Perhaps a more sustainable, and economically beneficial, solution is for us Africans to host our sites locally. This will reduce the latency and also help African firms which provide hosting services. It might also start a virtuous cycle of increased speeds, greater internet usage, cheaper data and so forth.

So the next time you want to pull your hair out after a YouTube video stops buffering, remember that while Will Smith allegedly  famously said “God lives in Africa and sometimes visits other places”, the Internet lives in North America and Europe, sometimes visiting Africa.

God may live in Africa, the Internet certainly does not.