The Pigeon versus the Computer: A Surprising Win For All

In 2009, an unusual race took place to test the speed of the Internet in South Africa. It was the pigeon called Winston versus the speed of the Internet signal provided by Telkom.

Telkom, as many are aware, is the largest communications provider in South Africa. They offer landline to mobile to Internet services and have been described by many as controlling the monopoly on communication services, especially the land –based phones.

Winston is a homing pigeon not quite a year old (in 2009). He was literally a celebrity because of his remarkable achievement of “beating Goliath” against the big old giant, Telkom. It all began when Unlimited IT, a company in Durban, decided to stage a race in delivering data from Howick to Durban. Winston was to carry the 4GB memory stick while a staff member would begin transmitting the same data using the ADSL (Asymmetric Digital Subscriber Line) of Telkom. In figurative terms, it was the Kruger National Park versus the might of technology developed over many centuries.

Winston only needed 1 hour and 8 minutes to fly to Durban – probably also beating a car with a heavily laden trailer – and it took the staff in the Durban office less than an hour to upload the data. By time the upload was complete, the transmission over Telkom’s ADSL broadband service was only 4% complete.

Winston became an instant celebrity with fans from all over the country and meriting his own website and fan following on Twitter and Facebook. All sorts of souvenirs and memorabilia were designed and manufactured to celebrate the unusual victory.

Telkom did respond by announcing that they are working on improving Internet speed. And now, 3 years after, ADSL remains the main connectivity plan for Internet access in the country with 53% of the population signed up with Telkom. The rest prefer to use mobile phone networks (37%) or Wi-Fi hot spots (24%). The Internet connection is still considered as expensive, slow, and not very reliable. In fact, many of those who use ADSL also have a back-up plan with a 3G connection service: just as one uses an iPhone cover to protect your phone, your iPhone (or smartphone) keeps you in touch if the land line is out of service.

Telkom has also announced that it is upgrading its facilities to improve Internet speed. In September 2012 they will be launching the commercial trial of the company’s new 20 and 40 MBits for their digital subscribers. This faster network will only be available to a limited market which means only selected Telkom users. It will enable these lucky users to have HD video on demand and Internet protocol-based TV.

The company is also considering fibre links to office parks and housing estates replacing the existing copper lines. One of the main concerns is the cost of the upgrade. However, this is important and a step in the right direction for the company since competition is starting to creep up on them with wireless broadband networks.

However, South Africans should bear in mind that many places in the country are highly inaccessible and that Internet in these areas will be slow in being realised. Indeed, to get to certain communities in SA you’ll have to find a Nissan X-Trail for sale.

As for pigeon races, it has found renewed interest after the country embraced Winston and his achievement in emphasizing the need to upgrade Internet speed in the country. There have been many pigeon races that have been held over the past 3 years. The most recent was held in Sun City last January and the race was won by a bird from Germany.