Internet in Botswana

In the US, I am an internet junkie. It took coming to Botswana to realize that. Here, I prepay every megabyte of data I use. I have to track my use with a cell phone. When I run out, I go to a physical store and buy more. It’s both inconvenient and expensive.

That said, initiation of the service was easy – rather like buying electricity here. I went to “Orange” – one of several companies that sell data, and bought a “Flybox” for $100. The Flybox looks like a modem and functions like a cell phone, complete with SIM card. The Flybox receives data from a cell phone tower and provides wireless support for computer internet connections. Password protection allows you to control access. Like my cell phone, data are prepaid, so there is no paperwork to initiate the service. To check my usage and data remaining, I take the SIM card out of the Flybox, put it in my cell phone, and dial a number to get automated information. Then I put the SIM back in the Flybox – it’s a clunky system.

A flybox from Orange in the Old Mall, Maun
A flybox from Orange in the Old Mall, Maun

So far we go through about 3 GB a month – and we are careful with usage. I buy 5 GB at a time for US $80; the data expires 60 days after I buy it. 5 GB at the speed we have doesn’t support anything fancy like Netflix or online video games. We do use skype and facetime, but otherwise try to minimize usage. For instance, I write all my blogs offline and then load them up. My internet is too slow to support video uploads or photo-intensive emails, so I do all that at work, where the service is faster.

The Flybox option is easy to initiate but a pain to maintain because of having to go to a store every time you want more bandwidth. There are other options that I would buy if I lived here more permanently.

For instance, if you have a bank account you can get a yearly contract that automatically refreshes data every month. The cost is slightly lower per GB and the service obviously more convenient – although the details of these plans have eluded me. Ironically I can’t find comprehensive information on the Orange website and their in-store brochures focus more on selling me an imagined lifestyle that providing actual practical information about options and prices. I’m not here for a year and I only just got a bank account, so I will stick with the manual refill option for now.

There is a third option as well. You can have an antenna installed on your roof for about $250, and then the service is $100 – $250 per month depending on the speed you choose. This option would most approximate what I get at home for $50/month. The numbers quoted here are from my neighbor who has the antenna. For my 7-month stay, the installation and expense seems unnecessary, but would be the way to go if you ran an internet intensive business from home.

Having written all this, I think it could change tomorrow. The internet market is more advanced in Gaborone and probably less advanced in more rural parts of Botswana. It’s a matter of building infrastructure and developing the client base. So I expect in a few years’ time, costs will come down and convenience will improve. I look forward to finding out.