It's official – carrying data by homing pigeon is faster and more reliable – and cheaper – than much of the existing telecommunications infrastructure in the less-populated areas of South Africa.
Today, Winston the pigeon delivered a flash drive with 4Gb of data from Howick to Hillcrest in kwaZulu-Natal while the competing ADSL line was just getting started.
The unusual race was carried out by The Unlimited, which has call centres in various locations in the province, but needs to upload data to its Hillcrest head office on a regular basis.
The company has found that the ADSL lines it currently uses are just too unreliable to get the job done efficiently and set up today's exercise in a bid to draw attention to problem as well as to encourage stakeholders to "think outside the box" about solutions, says The Unlimited's Keven Rolfe.
Winston flew the 80km from Howick to Gillits in one hour eight minutes, Rolfe adds, with the total exercise – including downloading the data on to the flash drive, driving from Gillits to Hillcrest and uploading data to the server – took two hours, six minutes and 57 seconds.
He says the 4Gb represents about a week's worth of data for the company, which expects to transfer between 500Mb and 700Mb per day.
"Now 500Mb is not actually a lot of data," Rolfe says. "But on a good day, it takes about four to five hours to get this information home – and that's if the lines are up."
The biggest frustration, he says, is the frequency with which interruptions take place on the lines. The instance of a 4Mb file taking six hours to send recently is one example. Other examples include a line going down for four days, or just 50% availability on another line.
"The business looks to us in IT to enable them. They want to know where their call logs are and often we end up getting in the car and physically fetching them."
Rolfe is quick to point out that the pigeon race was not an attempt at "Telkom-bashing".
"Telkom and Neotel are doing their best to provide infrastructure, but the demand is just too great. They also face problems like copper theft and building works digging up their lines," he says.
"However, using a pigeon on a weekly basis isn't a sustainable model."
The race was an attempt to highlight the need for innovation in the industry, says Rolfe. "It's about thinking out of the box and being creative. It's not about being negative.
"It's a way of getting people to think about things in a different way; to collaborate on different solutions. We're saying, let's talk to the telcos and to government to take this forward and find solutions."
Rolfe admits that there are other connectivity options available to the company, including Diginet lines or radio frequency WAN, but costs could quickly become prohibitive – while a fast and reliable ADSL service would suit its needs.
"There are many options, but money is a problem. We need to be looking at ways to take the country forward."
The Unlimited has 11 call centres, many of them in locations off the beaten track. The reason for this, says Rolfe, is to create jobs and take work into rural communities.
The company's call centres are in Pinetown, Durban and Pietermaritzburg as well as rural centres in Estcour, Howick, Phoenix, Stanger, Empangeni, Chatsworth, Amanzimtoti and Port Shepstone.
Rolfe believes government and the telcos have a big role to play in getting connectivity into the rural areas to empower small businesses or self-employed entrepreneurs who can be the foundation for sustainability within their communities.