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Is Airtel Kenya's 3G the best Unlimited Internet?

This article is dated hence does not reflect the current state of affairs. For a more recent article on internet in Kenya, refer to the below link:

  1. Safaricom Internet is twice as fast as Airtel Internet across Kenya


My Internet speeds on Airtel Kenya's Unlimited Internet, circa February 2013




















When my former house captain, one Luyo Likoko, an ardent non-believer, told me that Airtel Kenya had the best unlimited Internet in the country, I was tempted not to believe him. Back then, I was swearing that Orange Kenya was the best thing when it came to unlimited Internet*, of course, with some Terms and Conditions.

The Orange Kenya Experience
Then Orange Kenya decided to alter the share of Internet and that of Terms and Conditions. See, Orange believe in something called Fair Usage Policy (FUP). The FUP is said to ensure that a few users do not degrade the quality of Internet connectivity for everyone else by using lots of capacity among st themselves

By providing them with truly unlimited Internet, such inconsiderate subscribers would end up taking advantage of this kind offer by downloading movies, downloading movies for their neighbours and a number would end up running Cyber Cafe's on a KSh. 3,000 monthly Internet connection.

However, some better learned folks elsewhere say that the above is a lie. Mobile networks do not get congested because you are downloading all the seasons of a certain series. The Internet was designed specifically to avoid congestion. However, the more the number of Internet users, the slower their Internet connection, unless the mobile operator increases the bandwidth to the core of the network, and also increases the spectrum (air waves) with which you can access their services. Spectrum tends to be unavailable, and expensive. This can be solved by having more BTS (Boosters) to provide more capacity under the same spectrum, but again, it's quite expensive to have such boosters.

Heavy downloaders do use a lot bandwidth, known as backhaul, but the cost of this isn't that high to be factored in this discussion, and can easily be passed on.

This is the reason why Safaricom Internet has slowed down in Nairobi despite the firm not offering unlimited Internet, where heavy downloaders purportedly slow down the Internet. Ironically, to ensure that you have good Internet speeds, a mobile operator has to stop adding new Internet users at some point. Yes, they'll have to tell you, sorry, we have reached an optimum number of Internet users, please try another provider. That, or they'll need to spend money on new BTS - which cost millions per new BTS.

Either way, Orange ended up reducing the speed of their unlimited Internet. I rarely use my Internet to download movies, but I often use it to stream YouTube videos and almost always use it to stream music from sites such as BBC’s iPlayer, Grooveshark and Mixcrate as I work. My main work includes writing for which I use the online Google Docs for and lots of online reading and research. With what I don’t see as excessive usage, I found that my Unlimited Orange Internet had slowly turned to Limited Internet, to the point it was almost impossible to stream music.

I shared my story with other Orange Internet users and they too agreed that they were seeing reduced Unlimited Internet speeds from Orange. The FUP is also quite unclear. In the nice old days (about 5 months ago), one rarely had their speeds limited and speeds were quite good, often hitting the 3 Megabits per second to 7 megabits per second range (Mbps). 4 Mbps will see you ideally downloading an MP3 file in 5 seconds, though it should take 10 to 15 seconds due to stuff we call overheads and latencies.

However, those days are long gone. Mind you, It is not that Orange has lots of users thus causing congestion, or that the few users are congesting the network. From unofficial sources (might be highly unreliable), it is said that users on the KSh. 3,000 monthly unlimited package were about 2,000 a month. (For comparison, stats filed by Orange to CCK show that Orange had 948,847 mobile Internet users, to account for 11 percent against Airtel's 15 percent , Yu's 7 percent and Safaricom's 66 percent. Internet users may include anyone who tried access any page on their mobile phone)

In my view, I feel that Orange felt that the few users on both its daily unlimited and monthly unlimited were using too much Internet compared to what they were paying. Orange felt they should pay more. It started by hiking the daily unlimited from Ksh. 39 to KSh. 50, but probably this was not enough.

In the good old days, it is said that Orange had FUP allowances at 20 Gigabytes  for monthly unlimited and 2 Gigabytes for daily unlimited. This was reduced over time, with the aim probably being to make unlimited users switch to 1 Gb, 5 Gb and other bundles which earns the network more as you download more.

Enter Airtel Unlimited
At this point, I decided to try Airtel Unlimited, seeing as they were the only other operator who offer 3G unlimited besides Orange. I shared my experience, which wasn’t that good in the first month. However, this was during the Christmas holidays, and it seems the engineers had “gone for Christmas”. (See Post: The Troubles one goes through using Airtel Kenya's "3.75G" http://blog.denniskioko.com/2013/01/the-trouble-one-goes-through-using.html)

My second month on Airtel Unlimited has been quite good. Speeds are good enough to stream music from the three sites with no buffering. YouTube, for most of the time has also been streaming with little buffering (about one or two less than 10 second pause) in the videos. The speeds are not as high as Orange used to offer, but they are good enough for me to comfortably work and have online entertainment on my PC.

Not that everything here has been perfect. As detailed in my previous post, I still have to hang my phone next to the ceiling in one corner of the house due to poor 3G signal coverage. In addition, in the last few days, speeds have been poor on a number of days, making YouTube streaming a bu-ff-er—i---ng task , and at times been so bad that even streaming music was affected by buffering. Sometimes it picked and went back to almost normal.

Yesterday was one of those bad days, though speedtests to San Francisco and Frankfurt in Germany (This is a major hub where lots of global Internet traffic is exchanged between networks)  were about 0.7 megabits per second, which is quite fair.

The cost is also fair, at KSh. 3,000 a month or KSh. 200 per day. The daily rate isn’t that friendly, and is probably designed to make users upgrade to a more friendlier bundle for Airtel.

From my experience, I will have to agree with my trusted former captain, that Airtel Unlimited Internet is the best in Kenya. The question though is for how long, before it faces the same issues that made Safaricom withdraw their Unlimited Internet and Orange limit their Internet

Comments

Eryk Ellys said…
Nice article. I've talked to some heavy downloaders and they say Airtel's Unlimited internet is the best. I'm a bit of a heavy downloader myself. I like Airtel. I've used it a few times for internet. But I hate the issues it has with connectivity here in Nairobi. I prefer Orange but with the drastic decrease in download speeds at recent times, I find it quite disappointing. I normally surf using my Android phone or use it as a portable WiFi hotspot (or USB tethering) and surf on my PC. I'm thinking maybe I should get a modem for either Airtel or Orange. I'll have to do a bit of research first... I haven't used Airtel's internet in a while, I think I'll give it a try soon and see how it goes. To get good connectivity I might also have to hang my phone near the ceiling too #LOL. Anyways, thanks for sharing.
Anonymous said…
Turns out airtel read your article and discontinued the unlimited bundles. Their speeds remain very good but now you have to pay top dolar for the service i.e you pay for every bit you download.

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