I am around Accra this week, surveying (conveniently) the internet cafes in my own neighbourhood, Kokomlemle.
So far, I have interviewed 13. There should be 17 or so in all. Then on to Adabraka, across the Ring Road.
As I start to talk to small business owners in Accra, it’s evident there are some big differences from the north. First, there are female-owned cafes here. 3 women so far, which is radical compared to none of the 67 up north. Also, people are making a slightly better living from the cafes here in the city. However, when asked what they need to succeed, all of them say connectivity. ‘The link’ (i.e. the internet connection from the only provider they can afford, Vodafone, formerly Ghana Telecom) is so unreliable it’s impossible to run an internet business.
This is interesting – the same criticism has come from every cafe owner surveyed so far. No one knows what is going on with ‘the link’, why it is so bad, why the company offers no compensation unless it goes down for two weeks consecutively (which, amazingly, has actually happened in the last couple of months). It’s down about 3 days a week on average, which means that people don’t even try to come to the cafes to browse unless they have to. Meanwhile, Vodafone charges the internet cafe owners for the connection as if it were working. If there were any alternative provider, every single cafe owner I have talked to vows they would switch instantly. The network sometimes has surges that fry people’s modems, for which the company does not compensate them. Each time the link goes down locally, the owners have to call Vodafone to come and fix it. But the technicians often won’t come out unless they are personal friends of the owners. So those who don’t have a buddy in the company have to bribe them instead. Which makes the bad service a big earner for individual technicians, and probably does not incentivise them to let management know that the customers are ready to mutiny.
So what is going on? How can you provide such terrible service and still stay in business? I consulted with a friend who works in telecoms here, and he came up with some suggestions.
The real answer, of course, is that there is no one else. The national provider set up all the country’s existing landline phone service, and thus owns the network infrastructure that delivers the DSL service everyone uses for broadband. It also controls access to the Sat3 submarine cable off the coast of West Africa. So it has a stranglehold on the market.
The company has also, in its previous incarnation as Ghana Telecom (bought by Vodafone last year amid an ongoing torrent of outrage and investigation from various political factions) set up a profoundly dysfunctional system for internet service provision. As my friend explains it, IP addresses (the numbers that identify users’ locations) were set up originally as open ports, meaning that they allowed, in principle, unlimited amounts of spam and virus-laden traffic. Certain global firewall systems have been set up to combat spam, since it slows down companies’ and even whole countries’ networks. One example is SORBS (see link below)
The way these blocking mechanisms work is by identifying the IP addresses that send mass emails, and blocking them. And since the IP addresses created by Ghana Telecom are all similar, these blocking mechanisms don’t distinguish between different locations within the country, so that the whole country shows up as one big spam-generation site.
Among other issues, this makes browsing sites outside Ghana as slow as mud, and means that emails from here to any official address outside the country will be bounced back as spam. For instance, I can’t email any administrative address at my university (Sussex) from here, nor can I access the electronic journals I need in order to study. My Amazon account keeps getting closed whenever I try to order anything from here (four times at the last count), and when I try to use a credit card online I either find my account blocked for fraud or I have to go through byzantine security procedures, using passwords I have inevitably forgotten.
So the upshot of all this is that ‘the link goes down’ because Ghana is spamming on a global scale. Over the three years or so since Ghana Telecom started offering general broadband service to major towns, the speed of broadband here has gone from quite good to a snail’s pace (it can take half an hour to download an email), all because of spam clogging the system. This may be the only situation where the internet gets slower and more expensive over time – Ghana is going in the opposite direction to the rest of the world.
The solution? Until someone devises a way to stop people spamming, the only response is to get Ghana’s internet addresses de-blacklisted internationally. This means Vodafone needs to invest in its network and re-register its IP ports with firewalls that will catch the spam and clean things up. The government, according to the industry, is not going to award any new contracts to ISPs until this situation improves, because more companies providing service on the same bad network would only clog things up further. So for the small enterprises of the tech sector, the future looks bleak unless Vodafone can get its act together.
So they have to wait, some more patiently than others, while customers fall asleep waiting for their email to download. The only benefit is that owners, since they can’t do their jobs most of the time, have a lot of spare time to talk to passing researchers.