How Slow Can You Go? Telecommuting from Africa

Here’s an informational post for readers who may be considering a trip abroad where they want to stay in touch with work.

speedometerLast week, I stumbled across an article on BBC’s news site describing a new method of data transfer that will allow Internet speeds as fast as 400,000 Mbps (4 Gbps).  I almost cried.

Do you know how fast your Internet connection is?  If you’re reading this from the United States, you rank 8th in the world for Internet speeds, according to Akamai’s annual report.  (South Korea is #1.)  The USA average download speed, according to real-time user tests, is 17Mbps.  At home, our cable provider supplied a 12 Mbps connection, sufficient to stream two Netflix movies simultaneously on two different computers.  Alas, those days are over…

Our internet speeds on the road

As we’ve traveled these last 9 months, our data speeds have steadily decreased. I’ve included our connection speeds on our apartments as well as reported national averages:

Country Our download speed (Mbps) National   average (Mbps)
USA (home)                   12                 17
Italy         [didn’t measure]                6.42
Turkey                   4                8.42
Botswana                 0.5                1.79
South Africa                 1.56                3.71

Let me tell you, this has taken some getting used to!  I will never take a good Internet connection for granted again.  But we hslowInternet1ave gradually become accustomed to the slower connections, and I wonder what we’ll think when we get to a location with first-world internet access again…

On the positive side, if you’re thinking of telecommuting from abroad as we’re doing, I can report that it’s been very manageable, even with the slowest of connections.  (Actually, the 500 kbps connection in Bostwana didn’t work so well, but I’ll share our workaround.)  Here’s a breakdown (completely unscientific) of what we can/can’t do at the various speeds we’ve encountered:

Speed Works fine So-So (works but is slow) Forget it
500 kbps Check email and basic Internet   surfing BBC News live stream Connect to work’s VPN
Youtube videos? Ha!
1.0 Mbps Connect to work’s VPN Skype (no video)
1.5 Mbps Stream Internet radio stations   (up to 64 kbps) Youtube videos (if you don’t   mind waiting 3-5 minutes for them to load) Download a rental movie from in less than 7 hours
4 Mbps Skype with video Download a rental movie from while doing other Internet tasks (usually  3-4 hours) Stream via Amazon or Netflix

Our telecommuting requirements

data 3We use a VPN (virtual private network) to access our work site and upload our research.  For this, we don’t need a connection worthy of online gaming, but we do need enough bandwidth to connect to the VPN and then access another server to download/upload our assignments.  I have found that we can get by with 1 Mbps.

Our Plan B

Our backup has been our 3G wireless modem.  For about $70, we bought an unlocked mobile wifi  (“mifi”) modem, the Huawei Technologies E5331, in Italy.  It’s about the size of a credit card and we can connect up to 5 devices (laptops, netbook, iPods, etc.) to it wirelessly.  Having an unlocked modem means that it works anywhere in the world on any provider’s network – all we need to do is buy a SIM card from a mobile phone store in each country for about $1 that (in theory) automatically connect to a local network.  (We have had to request help from the tech support teams at two mobile phone companies.  I’m baffled as to why my unlocked smartphone works just fine in each new country but the wifi modem sometimes takes some tweaking before it works…)

I call this method our backup because, although it easily meets our connection needs, it’s usually the most expensive option.  For example, in South Africa we’ve found prices ranging from $20 – $45 for 2 GB of data. We use around 500 MB of data per day if we’re working, listening to online radio, checking email and bank accounts, and reading the news online.

How does 3G stack up?

slow-internet-connectionFrom the northern reaches of Italy’s Dolomite mountains to the remote Kalahari Desert of Botswana, we’ve been pleasantly surprised at the availability of a reliable 3G cell phone signal.  It’s allowed us to work on trains and in the car when needed.  I’ve read that a 3G signal can run as high as 3.1 Mbps; I’ve found it to be more like 1 – 1.5 Mbps, at least here in the mountains of the Limpopo state of South Africa.  If I want to get really crazy, I can walk 300 m up the mountain to where the cell tower peeks over the horizon, and Bam!  5 bars of solid 3G.  It’s where I go to Skype with video, so long as the wind’s not too bad…

I can also report that 2G is not good; it simply isn’t fast enough to surf the internet at an acceptable speed, much less connect to our worksite’s VPN.

Feel free to leave a comment if you have specific questions about telecommuting and data connections abroad.


  1. All I know is you had to climb a hill to get a good enough Skype signal to talk today!

  2. Good information to have before venturing forth. I loved the graphics!

  3. Interesting! Sounds like you have your first post for your telecommuting blog-in-progress…
    I have to say, I think those speeds may also vary with the equipment. Like I mentioned to you, I thought streaming hulu through a vpn just naturally meant that there’d be “buffering” every minute or so and just thought we had to live with it – since I got my ipad it has been 99% smooth sailing on the same exact wifi network as before. Of course I can’t check my e-mail while I watch old Star Trek Voyager re-runs, but at least a 45 minute episode doesn’t take 60 minutes to watch! I thought I’d add to your Italy part, but just looked and my speed says 144 MB and that can’t be right – I am no techy :/

  4. Marie · · Reply

    I think your next destination should be the city with the fastest internet in the world. 🙂

    1. I thought you might pipe in on that one! How’s the Internet in Laos? ;o)

      Watch for us as early as May…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: