4G speed in 3rd world tempo – accessing internet in Botswana

Entering Gaborone from the airport one of the first things we see are boards telling us that now 4G is available in large areas of the capital and base stations rise high along the roads. But, as we will come to experience, quality broadband services is still not a reachable reality for many Batswana.

Any use of new media presupposes an infrastructure that can deliver the digital signals and people with means to access and use it. While the West has seen the computer and fixed internet lines as the dominating platform and infrastructure for the longest period of internet development, the African continent have moved right to mobile platforms and mobile signals.   


Botswana is no exception. More than 95% of all internet traffic in the country is on mobile platforms although around9% of the population are internet subscribers which is rather high in comparison to other African countries. The coverage of SIM-cards or mobile subscriptions in Botswana is moreover among the six highest in the world: 167 pr 100 inhabitants - i.e. an average of more than one and a half SIM-card pr inhabitant.  A RIA survey from 2012 indicate that 80 % of batswana own a phone , but that only 30 % had mobiles capable of browsing the internet.  However, although sales statistics point to smartphones being sold in ever increasing numbers (ref?), feature phones or 'dumb phones' that makes accessing internet difficult or impossible still seem to be the more common than the former.

Maitlamo, the countrys ICT policy

Although Botswana has scored well on several indicators related to development of the internet, it has in comparison to other African countries been among the most expensive and complicated when it comes to costs (RIA). Yet, developments are fast and the figures outdate quickly. Also, such statistics tells us relatively little about how everyday internet reality for Batswana is.. Finding out more about this and what the internet is used for is a task in the Mediafrica project.

It was among the 10 poorest countries in the world when it gained its independence in 1966. The country has since experience a remarkable growth (due to the discovery of diamonds), and reached in the 90’s status as a middle income country. To lay ground for an after-diamond economy and bridging the global divital divide, large sums has since the early 200's(?) been invested to build up ICT infrastructure. The vision is that digital connection to world markets, to education and for social life in general shall ensure sound development for Botswana (vision 2016). 

Digital reality?

Below are some snapshots of the various online connection possibilities we have become familiar with during our first month of fieldwork.

Ways to get online?

Airtime - Wherever you go in Gaborone you see people with mobile phones; carrying them in their hands texting, talking, tapping.  There are numerous small booths selling sweets- and airtime (cost for time spent talking/texting on a mobile phone) for the three different operators (Mascom, Orange and Be). You can buy small scratch cards or sms transfers of10, 20 or 100 Pula Airtime for the three operators; Mascom, Orange and Bee. “What is this airtime used for?” we asked. “Topping up the mobile” was the answer. Those who sell report there are many buyers every day. Enough to keep them going. We associate airtime to voice calls and sms’es mainly (?), but is it also a way Batswana connect with the internet? Yes, to some Batswana that’s the way, as the story of Kody and Keitumetse illustrates below.  

Gaborone is the area with best internet infrastructure in Botswana. Our own first access to internet here – as we did not yet have Bastwana simcards – was through the WI-Fi’s available at the guest house where we stayed and the various cafes, restaurants and internetcafes we visited. In all these places WiFi was a service connected to other expenses – albeit not publicly ‘free’. It seems difficult to find places with ‘free wifi’ in Gaborone (except for at the university, but that is only for students and staff with usernames). The available ‘extra service’ wifi’s were also often rather weak/slow and unstable as many people use them simultaneously (although BOCRA has set a standard for these).

Could mobile internet subscription provide better internet access than the wi-fi’s? Finding out what was the various mobile internet subscription possibilities proved difficult. We therefore decided to visit the operator who advertised 4G possibility. At first sight the price did not appear too terrifying to a Norwegian – P 149 for one month with up to 800 MB – so we went for it. With some help we managed to go online, and to use our phone as a hot-spot for our laptops. However, given our habitual high use-pattern the 800 MB’s went quickly. And, when inspecting the connection we found the 4G surfing was not a reality, our phones (being brand new 4G enabled) only connected to the 2G network (Whereas 2G -  the second generation of mobile technology – worked best for making calls and sending text messages and 3G made it possible to access the internet more effectively through the mobile phone, 4G services are supposed to make surfing the web from mobiles as speedy as on home broadband allowing for video streaming, mapping and social networking sites).

 Not finding the mobile internet solutions all that satisfactory we inquired about the fixed line internet possibility and decided to try out the most affordable package (bronze). The costs for fixed internet connection are said to have been reduced by 75 percent since 2013 and we were offered a montly rate of 450 Pula (?). Although this connection was a bit slow and had interruptions it did, given som patience, accommodate many of our ordinary surfing needs.

The young are on Facebook, but wherelse? – and what about the older generation?

There are few countries in the world where the difference between rich and poor are as large as in Botswana. The Gini-coefficient, which is the most common measure of differences in wealth within a population, is a staggering 0.5??, which indicates that a great proportion of the population is poor – in spite of the fact that Botswana is one of the wealthiest countries in Africa. This means many Batswana cannot access internet the way we do. Yet, most young adult Batswana seem to have some access to internet from their mobile. How do they do it- and for what?

Kody, a 24 year old woman coming from the Francistown area but living just outside Gaborone, has a daughter of two and a boyfriend in a steady, relatively well paid job but stays alone with her daughter. We met her as she at about six was leaving her job as a security guard in Gaborone, eager to get home to her daughter who was looked after by a young, distant relative. Thepi has a five year old cellphone. She got it from her father when she finished school and according to her it made a huge difference in her life allowing her to keep better track of sociality with her friends, entertain herself when feeling lonely and now keeping in touch with family when staying so far away. Thepi does not have an email address and her worn,scratchy and shady mobile cannot connect to internet through wifi or hot-spot. Yet, she IS on Facebook and a frequent user of What’s app. So how does Thepi connect? Thepi shows us how.

First she needs to have some airtime, 10 P of airtime is enough. Then she dials a certain number that directs her to Mascom’s MyTime Internet time, a page from where she can buy internet bundles. She buys every month a bundle for 50 Pula. This allows her to surf as much as she wants (no limit to MB download) for 5 hours within 30 days. When she has MyTime left she gains access to internet typing in addresses in the mobile browser.

Keitumetse, a 21 year old woman, who came down from her rural village less than a year ago along with several classmates to find work. She lives with her aunt and has fewer living expenses. She used her first salary to buy a fancy tablet phone, a precious thing she carries next to skin to protect it from theft, and posts frequently on Facebook, mainly to communicate with friends. The phone has a big shiny screen, can access internet and connect to wifi, but whereas internet is expensive and wifi not so often a possibility, she often uses 0.facebook.com/zero.facebook.com: “ a text-only” version of the standad Facebook” (0.facebook.com) that allows her to update her status, view her newsfeed, like and comment pages, send and reply to messages and write on her friends walls. Link to internet.org and the ria report on facebook zero]. But as pictures and going to other websites is charged, she also uses the ordinary m. facebook.com when having internet time left in her bundle. Although she has experienced buying for aitime and bundles she did not receive from the operator, she does not know how or trust there are agencies where she can file such complaints (BOCRA).

A raised concern, connected to the use of services such as facebook zero is that these young people, due to their efforts to keep costs down, are tied into particular Facebook pages and operator relationships, and cannot be considered to have access to the kind of free internet that can foster democratic development (http://www.researchictafrica.net/publications/Other_publications/RIA_Facebookzerorating_policypaper.pdf ).  Also, the generation of older adults, especially those living in rural areas with lower incomes, seem to a very little extent to have any access to internet. As one young man put it: “no parent or person over 50 is on Facebook or the like, except if they are rich”. In this sense the digital divide is wide at present in the country.

Growing digital divide?

There seem to be a lot of practical hindrances to extensive use of internet In Botswana despite the many alternatives being developed.

First, although more reliable and speedy internet connections like fixed broadband and 4G are available costs are still too high for most Batswana to use these. Free access alternatives like free wifi is scarce. Also, many Batswana seem to have phones that does not cater for use on wifi. Such phones as expensive. The combination of high prices and many poor inhabitants - means that a lot of people can't afford using the internet, even though they could have accessed it if it wasn't for their economic concerns.

Secondly, even for those who can afford fixed broadband and 4G connectivity, these services do not yet seem to deliver what they promise – not even in Gaborone.  Despite all the alternatives we have been able to utilize we have not experienced one day without some delay or interruption in connectivity – and out connection is usually 2G, sometimes 3G. A visit to the bank, a place you would expect had good connection, or when using credit card for swipe payment, you find things are slow because the connection is down. And although store provide all the big gaming consoles and games (Playstation, xbox, wii and games such as FIFA, GTA, COD CS etc) to those who have money and interests in that direction, attendants inform us these are mostly used offline “our internet connection does not cater for online games”.  The many electric outages cut the transmission of signals. The situation is even worse in the rural areas where there are still places with very bad or no coverage (link Bocra 2014).

So, although more and more Batswana may be online regularly, they are not online for very long hours and their use is tuned to the conditions of their internet opportunities. Desipite promises of 4G speed they are stuck in the 3rd world tempo caused by electricity breakdowns, unrealiable connections and high costs. These conditions still seem to put the majority of Batswana among the digital disadvantaged in a global context, and widens the digital divide between Batswana. 


(ta ut?)The latest IPhone model is nothing more than a fancy status symbol if information is not transmitted.Although coverage has improved, speed is often very slow.  The promise of 4G is that you can surf the internet with your mobile at speeds similar to that of fixed broadband.