A recent report from Akamai ranked Kenya’s internet quality the best in Africa. Indeed, it put Kenya ahead of most European countries in the broadband Internet ranking.
Other than the ICT Cabinet Secretary, who supported and explained the findings, the rest of us who live in Kenya may have viewed the findings of the report with some scepticism. But rather than dismissing the good news outright, I sought to understand the reasoning behind the ranking, by looking for the methods Akamai had used to place Kenya so highly.
The first thing to understand is that Akamai is a Content Distribution Network (CDN), meaning that its core business is bringing global content closer to local audiences. For example, remote video content from, say, Netflix or YouTube hosted abroad would have copies hosted on local Akamai servers situated domestically at, say, their Mombasa data centres.
East African users would therefore experience better quality services when viewing Netflix or YouTube content from a domestic site, rather than if the same content were fetched from some remote foreign site.
This is all good and is standard practice for big players who wish to serve their audiences with a faster, better internet experience.
Now having understood the way CDNs work, we can begin to understand the weakness of the Akamai internet speed methods, particularly within the context of a developing country.
‘A GRAVE MISTAKE’
Basically, Akamai measured the speeds at which users requested content or data from their domestic servers. They found that Kenya’s speeds (15mbps) were very high, similar to those experienced in developed economies. Whereas this may be true, it fails to account for a large set of internet users who never access Akamai-hosted data.
Put differently, the sample of users on which Akamai’s internet speed data is based is biased towards users who can afford to watch content like streaming video over the internet.
Users who hit Akamai servers for video content tend to live in urban centres and be subscribers to a fixed internet broadband connection and perhaps the latest 4G/LTE mobile internet. The speeds at which Akamai serves this video content are likely to be as high as reported.
It would, however, be a grave mistake for public policy to be made around such internet speed figures because they do not represent the average Kenyan internet user.
The profile of a Kenyan internet user is correctly captured in the regular statistics published by the Communications Authority of Kenya, which show that less than 12 per cent of Kenyans have subscribed to fixed broadband internet connections.
Additionally, the 2016 Access Gap Report showed that nearly all Kenyans (98 per cent) have access to mobile 2G access, and more than three quarters (78 per cent) have access to 3G mobile services. Figures for the recently launched 4G services were not captured.
ACTUAL SPEED METRICS
Although plans are at an advanced stage, to date there are no official statistics from the CA on the quality of internet service in Kenya. So, in establishing the true state of internet quality, we can only make estimates based on the fact that the majority of Kenyans access internet through their 3G-based mobile devices.
Mobile 3G speeds can fluctuate widely, from 0mbps to around 20mbps, depending on access technology, location and congestion status of base stations. This range is too broad to provide actionable policy guidance, especially in the absence of actual speed metrics.
However, there are some tools out there that users can download, install on computers and mobile devices and use to check out the actual speeds of an internet connection. They include My Speed Testor the OONIPROBE, which provide instant speed reports of your current active internet link.
These tools differ from Akamai tools in that they are user rather than vendor driven. They therefore widen the population sample and generate a dataset that includes a wider populace, rather than restricting it to users who perhaps already enjoy high-speed services.
When well directed and harnessed, they are likely to present the true state of internet quality in Kenya. Feel free to try them and share your experiences.