Sometimes 12th-century technology wins.

This week, a South African call-center business, frustrated by persistently slow Internet speeds, decided to use a carrier pigeon named Winston to transfer 4 gigabytes of data between two of its offices, just 50 miles apart. At the same time, a computer geek pushed a button on his computer to send data the old-fashioned way, through the Internet.

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Winston the pigeon won. It wasn’t even close.

“Winston arrived after two hours, six minutes, and 57 seconds,” says Kevin Rolfe, head of the information technology department at Unlimited Group, a call-center business based in Durban. As for the Internet data transfer, he says, “when we finally stopped the computer, about 100 megs had transferred, which is about 4 percent of the total.”

Officially, the Unlimited Group has not given up on the Internet, nor has it any plans to embrace the use of homing pigeons that was pioneered on the battlefield by Genghis Khan. But while the pigeon-versus-Internet stunt was a resounding success in terms of satire, it also makes a point that many businesses throughout Africa are making: Africans pay some of the highest prices for some of the least reliable Internet service in the world. And if a country like South Africa – relatively prosperous and developed – can’t solve this problem, then it’s going to need a lot more pigeons.

In most parts of Africa, Internet service is provided by satellite transmission dishes, an expensive and unreliable option. Go to an Internet cafe in Kinshasa or Khartoum, and you’ll see dozens of earnest students and businessmen, typing out messages, pushing the send button, and then hoping the power doesn’t go out before the message gets sent.

Your humble correspondent in Africa last year attempted to send about one minute of digital video of displaced people in Kenya to his headquarters in Boston, through the so-called broadband Internet service provided at his Nairobi hotel. Six hours later, there was still an hourglass icon on his screen, with a message that simply read “sending.”

Undersea cable brings broadband to some

In theory, Africa’s problems are already well on their way to being solved. A $650 million undersea cable, linking the Kenyan port city of Mombasa with a larger sea cable system servicing Asia, was officially activated in late July of this year, bringing most major cities in East Africa their first taste of high-speed broadband Internet. But three months later, local Internet service providers have refused to drop their prices, offering increased bandwidth at the same price.

Some African nations have gone all-out to get the most bang out of the cable. Rwanda, for instance, has extended a high-speed fiber-optic cable network to every district and every major town in the country in anticipation of the cable, in hopes of turning itself into an information-technology hub like Singapore. Others, like South Africa, have been updating their systems, but can’t keep up with the exploding demand.

Which brings us back to Winston the pigeon. Mr. Rolfe says the idea for the pigeon race came from a member of his IT department, who remembered an April Fool’s joke of sending data by homing pigeons. After one too many incidents of a dropped line or a failed transfer, one IT tech finally blurted out, “We should just use pigeons.”

Taking a cue from former empires

As unusual as the idea sounds today, pigeons have been a powerful tool for empires, financial and otherwise. In the mid-19th century Paul Julius Reuter (founder of the Reuters news agency) used pigeons to send stock information between the cities of Aachen and Brussels, until telegraph service eventually replaced them. And as recently as World War I the British admiralty used pigeons to send battlefield information. (The Germans, predictably, trained falcons to intercept messages.)

Never a company to do things in half-measures, Unlimited Group began to promote its Pigeon Race 2009 on its website. Winston the pigeon soon had his own Facebook fan page, a website with training videos, and yes, Winston began to tweet. On Twitter. When Winston finally landed at the offices in Durban – risking hawks, gun-happy hunters, and high-winds – the results were carried by newspapers, TV stations, and were a huge sensation in the Twittersphere.

Winston’s feat illustrates larger problem

Perhaps stung by the pigeon experiment, South Africa’s giant communications company, Telkom, issued a statement to the South African Press Agency explaining that it was not to blame for Unlimited Group’s slow internet service.

“Telkom would like to clarify that the company cannot be blamed for this particular customer’s lack of throughput speeds,” Troy Hector, Telkom’s head of ICT, wrote to Sapa in an e-mail. “Several recommendations have, in the past, been made to the customer but none of these have, to date, been accepted. It must also be noted that Telkom is not the customer’s core service provider.”

Rolfe insists that the pigeon experiment was not aimed at any one particular company, but rather at the common problem that Internet have: slow Internet speed. A customer like Unlimited Group, which transmits an average of 500 megabytes of data per day, can’t afford to have unreliable connectivity.

“Look, we don’t blame Telkom or Neotel, or any of the other Internet providers,” says Rolfe. “Those guys, the providers are doing the best job that they can. But we are saying, fine, let’s sit down and think out of the box and figure out how to improve South Africa’s telecommunications.”

As for Winston, Rolfe says the pigeon is in no danger of losing his job. “He still goes out on training runs,” Rolfe says, especially when the computer lines are down. “Using pigeons, it’s not the optimal plan,” he chuckles. “But we may do it from time to time, to give Winston some airtime.”


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