Finding Cheap Fast Internet in South Africa

I’ve been in Cape Town for a little over two months now and will be here for a few more weeks. I’ve hunted around for fast Internet and tried a few options. Here’s what I’ve found and maybe it’ll help you.

I’m specifically interested in international bandwidth to the USA and my benchmarks are based on buying 1.5 to 2 gigabyte movies from the iTunes store and downloading them or transferring big chunks of data from our Seattle data center via SCP [or what you might think of as SFTP].

  • Mweb home ADSL is generally slow for international bandwidth. You’re lucky if you get 200 kbps on the 1 megabit line. This is my absolute-in-case-of-emergency option I’m using at the place I’m staying because it is so slow. 
  • The 10 megabit business ADSL option that Mweb provides is nice and fast and you’ll get 3 to 6 megabits per second international bandwidth but it’s quite expensive. A friend has this at a building where I rent office space in Cape Town city bowl. As a side note: When the Seacom cable went down recently they didn’t slow down at all even though Mweb home subscribers were horribly slow because Mweb prioritizes their business customers much higher than home.
  • Vodacom’s little USB 3G pay as you go modem is very nice and fast at around 3 to 5 megabits international bandwidth, but it’s quite expensive. They charge per gig transferred and it’s something like $20 per gigabyte. I’ve run through my Vodacom little red USB modem and won’t be refilling it because it’s too pricey, although very reliable.
  • Vodacom’s portable hotspot option if you have a pay as you go sim card and a cellphone that supports portable hotspot also performs well and is also expensive for data transfer. This is currently my backup option to my Cell C modem. Whenever I use it, it’s wicked fast but I can see the dollar signs racking up.
  • The real winner in my opinion is Cell C’s 100 Gig USB pay as you go modem. It’s horribly unreliable but I get 6 megabits per second international bandwidth at times. More below:

Cell C has a package called Giga100 which is R2499 or $270 for 100 gigabytes of transfer which is not limited to off-peak hours. You have to go into a Cell C store and they might not have stock, so call ahead. This option gives you a little white USB modem but you need to know how to use it to get fast speeds. Here’s how:

  • Get a USB extension cable as long as you can get. I use a 5 meter extension. 
  • Put the modem at the end of the extension preferably outside and make sure it isn’t raining.
  • Try to put the modem on a ledge so it’s hanging off with space underneath it for better signal. What also works is hanging it from the top of an umbrella.
  • Another trick that works is putting it into a small metal pot with the lid off. Believe it or not this can boost signal. I think some Russian posted a video proving this a while back on Youtube.
  • Even if your software is telling you you’re getting 5 bars of HSPA signal inside or outside, you’ll still notice a better transfer rate when it’s outside.
  • When connecting, here’s the process: Connect, start transfer, if it’s slow, disconnect and reconnect and start transfer. Repeat until you’re getting a fast transfer speed. Cell C seem to have 3 subnets they allocate IP addresses from. They start with 10.*.*.*, 41.*.*.* and 197.*.*.* and you’ll randomly get assigned an IP address from one of those. Sometimes I’ll connect and an entire subnet will be down. I’ll have no connectivity. So I’ll reconnect and get a different IP address and get wicked fast international transfer. So just keep trying.

It’s 1:20pm on Wednesday and here’s my current transfer rate downloading a movie from iTunes:

Screen Shot 2013-04-03 at 12.52.07 PM

My theory is that Cell C has bought a large international pipe, but their engineers are wildly incompetent and their cellphone network is spotty. The result is that unless you know how to get a kick ass signal and land on a working subnet, you are not going to get a working connection. So the fat pipe that Cell C has is underutilized and those who manage to actually get a working connection enjoy an empty international super-highway.

To summarize: If money is no object, just buy a Vodacom USB modem and pay an extra $20 to $30 in bandwidth charges for every movie you rent from Apple. If you want a deal and don’t mind hacking the system a little and putting in some effort, get a Cell C modem and pay $2.70 per gigabyte with (when it works) a kick ass connection.

Disclaimer: If you do get a Cell C modem and it’s awful, don’t blame me.


12 thoughts on “Finding Cheap Fast Internet in South Africa

  1. Nice post! I am down in Cape Town 3-4 months out of the year for business and this will no doubt come in handy next visit. One thing that I will mention, as I am currently buying data (sparingly) through Vodacom and using my cell phone as a mobile hot spot, is that Vodacom has an expiration on the data you buy. Currently 2.5 GB of prepaid mobile data is around R450 ($45) and expires about 2 months after purchase. Not bad if you are using it for data on the go, but rather costly for movies, music, and surfing through YouTube.

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