- The Washington Times - Monday, September 7, 2009

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa | Botswana has great cellular data service. Wi-Fi at my hotel in Zambia was usually better than expected. And as you might expect, Johannesburg has excellent connections to the Internet and beyond.

I’ve wrapped up a quick trip to the southern portion of the continent, my first time in Africa in just over 10 years. On that earlier trip, I remember being impressed with a cyber cafe in Nairobi, Kenya, and the burgeoning cellular system in east Africa. What a difference a decade makes.

Most of my time was spent in Livingstone, Zambia, a not-so-smallish city in the southern part of the country near Victoria Falls and on the Zambezi River. At the Protea Hotel, one could get Wi-Fi access to the Internet, provided by iSpot, a local service firm, but only in 60-minute increments, doled out by clerks at the hotel’s front desk.

Well, the tickets read “one hour,” but they also stated a maximum of 25 megabytes of data transfer. Load too many Web pages, send too many e-mails — say, a photo or two from a nearby camera safari where the giraffes, elephants and hippos were plentiful — and that “hour” can shrink to minutes.

By the end of my trip, I was up to two tickets at a time from the front desk; they were, after all, tiring of me coming back so often. While I realize that most people don’t come to Livingstone for the Internet access, business travelers do have needs. Perhaps the future will offer better data services, even this far from home.

Neighboring Botswana — the Chobe River and adjacent safari park are about 90 minutes from Livingstone via tour bus, ferry and pickup truck — was an amazing surprise in terms of cellular data as well as wildlife. Both Botswana and Zambia have cellular systems built on the Global Standard for Mobile, or GSM, format; it just seems that Botswana’s is far more data-friendly, since in Zambia, I could only receive e-mail on my cell phone via the Wi-Fi at the hotel.

Although I didn’t see any computer shops in Livingstone (nor, frankly, did I seek out any), the penetration of computing is very strong. Conference-goers at the hotel almost uniformly toted laptop computers; hotel rooms at the Protea have flat-screen TVs, and the lobby was always a popular Wi-Fi hot spot.

Indeed, the “netbook” craze can be found in Livingstone as much as in Laurel, Md,: The iSpot Web page offers custom-configured netbooks at a reasonable price, so I wouldn’t be surprised if the small devices flood the market there eventually, especially among the affluent.

There are, of course, many people in Zambia who can only dream of owning a computer. However, in rural churches I visited I noticed a fair amount of computer equipment being used to run projection systems for meetings, and some of the church schools I saw under construction will also have computer facilities.

Getting to Zambia required stops in Johannesburg, and on my way home, I spent a night at the City Lodge Hotel near the O.R. Tambo International Airport. Here, the Wi-Fi was to die for: super-fast, reasonably priced at about $20 for four hours’ service, and exceptionally reliable.

In London, the Sofitel Hotel at Heathrow’s Terminal 5 is another dream spot: VGA and HDMI connections for your computer to use the large LG flat-panel display, and reliable Wi-Fi that costs about $25 a day. If only British Airways had something similar on the wireless side, I could file these words while flying home.

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