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Accessing the Web in Cameroon

posted Feb 14, 2010, 8:15 AM by Reinoud Vaandrager
Access to the internet in Cameroon is like trying to eat soup with only a knife; It is possible but you need a lot of patience and it might hurt a bit in the process ;)

Let me explain: According to the CIA world factbook 2009 Cameroon has 1 ISP. Personally I believe there are two now (Orange and MTN) but there is clearly not a lot of competition. There are also not a lot of users (700K). Since almost nobody has landlines, the most common way to access the web is through the GSM cellular network using GPRS (or EDGE if you are lucky).

At RUDEC we are using a GPRS connection, and it literally takes ages to load a page. (GPRS is already slow, but their services are also overloaded with a contention ratio that is probably off the chart). Using my network monitor the average speed is around 1Kb/s (some peaks of 12Kb, but mostly a 0Kb/s flatline..). Due to this pages time out, need to be reloaded etc etc. This means that most modern webpages with AJAX and other fancy stuff usually fail.

With extensions such as AdBlock and flashblock, it is possible to avoid loading all the advertising crud that slows down the loading even further.

One page that does consistently load well for me though is Gmail :) Especially with gears installed it is possible to use it in offline mode, but what is even better is the "Flaky connection mode":

Since I work for Google it was great to discover that even though most engineers are on ultra high speed connections in Silicon Valley, somebody still has thought about access in developing countries and implemented a solution for slow connections that have frequent interruptions like that one I am on now :)

I did not know about Gmail's flaky mode until I really needed it. Thanks Google! :)

For the more serious stuff (such as updating my blog, checking Google Reader, etc) I need to visit an internet cafe. Luckily there is one down the road, just 20 minutes from my house. Most internet cafe's are connected to a Kenyan ISP over a sattelite uplink. This gives them decent speed, but it is also fairly unreliable (up/down/up/down/up/down..)

However, even though the connection speed in the cafe's might be decent, the computers are horrible relics from the 90's infested with a museum archive of viruses and malware. One particularly nasty piece of work is the Tazebama virus that spreads through USB drives. (which means that every computer in the internet cafe is infected).

The typical internetcafe PC is a flashback to the 90's with priated windows on discolored CRT monitors combined with the complete virus and malware experience.

The first couple of days I brought my USB drive with pictures to upload for my blog to these sytems only to have all files on the drive to be turned into executable viruses the moment you insert the drive in the USB slot.

Basically, sticking a USB drive in an internet cafe computer is the digital equivalent of having unsafe sex with a disease ridden prostitute. You might feel lucky, but don't count on it.

First I tried notifying the staff telling them that they need better virus and malware security on their computers (preferably linux, but that doesn't work well with their internet cafe suite). To my horror I discovered the next time that the staff had installed "Internet Security 2010" a notorious rogue antivirus package that takes your entire system hostage. So this approach clearly failed.

Next I tried cleaning some machines by installing "spyware terminator" wich provides good spyware protection and also good virus scanning thanks to the integration with ClamAV, only to discover that either it is a mission impossible, or if successful all your work will have been disabled or undone by another user. So I needed to find another solution to transfer files from my USB stick to an infected system. What I needed was a 'condom' for my USB stick.

After putting in some thought I realised that I needed to find a stick with a read-only switch. Most SD cards have such a switch, but none of the USB sticks I have owned have one.. Luckily I have been donated a large stash of old USB drives, so after searching through the pile I found exactly one ancient 32MB stick that has a read-only switch, hurrah! :)

viruses can't touch this: a read only switch on your USB - the digital equivalent of safe-sex :)

Anyway, If you ever find yourself in a developing country desperately needing to access the internet, remember my words: adblock, flashblock, gears, gmail flaky connection mode, usb read-only switch - and you will be fine :)

(and forget about booting your own distribution from USB, the 90's desktop machines won't boot it)