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Pigeon beats South Africa's slow internet

New undersea cables boost speed and web use is growing.

Winston, an 11-month-old carrier pigeon, was faster than South Africa's internet in transmitting data over a 60 mile distance. The 11-month-old pigeon carried a memory stick with data more quickly than the data could be sent over the internet to another computer in Durban, Sept. 9, 2009. Internet speed and connectivity in Africa's largest economy are poor because of a bandwidth shortage. It is also expensive. (Rogan Ward/Reuters)

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — South Africa may be the powerhouse economy of the continent but it lags far behind even other African countries when it comes to internet usage.

Going online in South Africa is expensive and frustratingly slow, perhaps best exemplified by the story of Winston the pigeon, who last year famously proved that it was faster to send data by carrier pigeon than on an ADSL line operated by South Africa’s main web firm. To the surprise of few internet users in South Africa, Winston flew a 4GB memory stick 60 miles in the same time the Telkom line had sent only 4 percent of the data.

But this may finally be changing. A new study has found that the number of South Africans going online via broadband internet connections had grown by more than 50 percent in the past year, thanks to new undersea cables and the licensing of greater numbers of service providers that has started to result in cheaper, faster internet. (Read about Sierra Leone's efforts to connect to fiberoptic cables.)

After years of relatively stagnant growth, the number of internet users in South Africa jumped by 15 percent in 2009, and is forecasted to grow by a similar rate in 2010, according to the study by Johannesburg-based technology market research organization World Wide Worx and Cisco, the networking equipment firm.

There are now more than 5 million internet users in South Africa, or 10 percent of the population of 49.3 million.

“It’s people who are economically active and have computers but previously found it too expensive to come online,” said Arthur Goldstuck, managing director of World Wide Worx.

Most of the growth in broadband internet came from small- and medium-sized businesses upgrading to ADSL, which in turn provided internet access to more than half a million South Africans working in offices who were not previously online. The study also found that larger companies are increasingly giving 3G cards to their employees so that they can work outside the office, driving growth in wireless internet. The number of wireless internet subscribers jumped by 88 percent in the past year, and high speed internet connections by 21 percent.

Despite having the largest GDP of any African country, South Africa ranks fourth in terms of the total number of internet connections, behind Egypt, Nigeria and Morocco.

“We are below other African countries when we actually should be the leading African country,” said Matthew Buckland, CEO of South Africa-based, which is focused on tech culture and innovation in the emerging market sector.