Saturday, April 12, 2008

Zimbabwe Offline

Getting onto the internet in Zimbabwe can be a frustrating and expensive business. We have an archaic, un-maintained telephone system with corroded copper wires – no fibre optics. The government does not encourage email or internet access and charges a US $20,000 application fee to apply for a satellite link permit (and permits are rarely granted, so you could just be subsidizing the custom upgrades of the Minister’s Mercedes Benz – oops, I meant to say - contributing to an important government shopping trip initiative). Satellite access is illegal without this special permit. There are only a few internet service providers, and like the mobile phone network providers, these are all oversubscribed so that your connection speed/ability rarely matches what you pay for. Dial up is the more affordable option – it can take over an hour to download a single, text only email. If someone sends you picture or an attachment of 1 or 2 mb, it can take four hours or more to download it.

I am lucky enough to have (occasional) access to broadband – but it is very expensive at US $350 per month. So you can imagine my delight when my ADSL line went down on Monday. My internet provider, Zimbabwe Online, checked the link promptly and determined that the telephone line was the problem – and of course, that is serviced by the government telephone company.

I reported the problem to the telephone company on Monday, and spent a frustrating week at home, waiting for the engineer to come and fix the problem – you don’t want to miss your turn or you have to spend weeks pleading with them to return.

I cancelled business meetings, my daily trip to the bank (important as your daily withdrawal limit is worth less than ten US dollars and many shops and services insist on cash), exercise, food shopping - basically I put my life on hold. I can’t work without internet access, so no connection means no income, and potential loss of future income as I am virtually incommunicado. On top of that, each week spent staring hopelessly at your useless ADSL modem, hoping and praying for a miracle is compounded by the comforting knowledge that it has cost you another hundred dollars - money that could normally go a long way over here - in fruitless internet connection fees.

By Wednesday I was feeling extremely ill and really wanted to go to the doctor – but of course the telephone company said they were coming, so I didn’t dare miss my turn. On Thursday I finally caved in and went to the doc - turned out that I had tonsillitis! I rushed back home of course, in case the engineer pitched up.

On Friday, the engineer called me early morning, waking me up in my sickbed (sympathy please!). I skipped my morning shower, quickly threw on some clothes, and rushed to the gate to wait his imminent arrival. Guess what? He did actually pitch up.

Six hours later.

And he explained that none of the other engineers even go to work because their salaries don’t cover two loaves of bread, let alone the daily commute.

He didn’t have any equipment, asking to borrow a voltmeter and a spanner. He tore the cable off the wall and opened the switch box, and then said he had to go the telephone exchange for the next step, leaving all the wires exposed. I can’t tell you how reluctant I was to let him leave, but nothing ventured…

Anyway, (even) long(er) story short, I got back online Friday afternoon. An absolute miracle to get my line fixed before the weekend. Having dropped hints about his measly salary I gave the engineer all the cash I had – a hundred million zim dollars – worth about two US dollars. I took his mobile phone number, and he said he’d come quicker next time – if that actually is the case, it's a hundred million bucks well spent!

No comments: