How phone calls and internet work in Liberia

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Living in the Liberian hinterland bears challenges you can’t expect unless you’re there. One example is communication. While the internet connection is pretty stable and strong enough for emails and occasional surfing, you’re totally disconnected from Skype, YouTube and larger file downloads (there are means to overcome that, usually involving fiddling around with a server I run in Germany caching data for me and downloading it over night, but it’s still a hassle).

But when it comes to phone calls, things get difficult. Of course, I can choose to make my phone calls from my normal cellphone. But as Germany is not a focus country of Liberia, I don’t profit from the 5ct/min price to the US, UK, Canada, India and China. Instead, I have to pay 40ct/min – which is still ok compared to the opposite direction (roughly 3€/min), but still expensive. Imagine a 20min-call for 8€. And then do that ten times a month. :-)

So I usually talk through the internet, with the help of voip-providers like sipgate. That makes it relatively cheap ($20/month for the internet ‘flat rate’, 7,90€ for the voip-flatrate to German landlines, no additional costs), but also comes with some serious challenges.

First, the internet usually is only stable on Weekdays early in the morning (up to 9am local time), and in the evenings (after 9pm local time). Given that there is a time difference to Germany, I either have to get up at 5am to reach someone in Germany at 7am, before he/she goes to work, or I have to call after 11pm German time. Not really practical. It is a bit better on the weekends, where I can usually call throughout the mornings – that is, when the expat-community in Monrovia is sleeping. Afternoons are more difficult, but sometimes, you’re lucky!

Second, stable does not mean stable. It means 50:50 stable. So when I make a call, it might work, or the latency between the two ends is so big that it’s just frustrating. Imagine you hear someone with a delay of 5sec, and then try having a conversation!

Third, I can only call with my computer. That means: Switch the computer on, plug in the modem, connect (and hope that the towers are working), and then sit in front of the computer for the duration of the call.

In order to really experience this, I would suggest to try the following experiment:

1) Limit your phone times to weekdays 7am-9am, and 9pm-11pm (7:00-9:00 and 21:00-23:00), and weekends 7am-1pm (7:00-13:00).

2) Don’t use a cordless phone, or if you have that, choose a chair to sit in while talking.

dice3) Take a die and roll it. If it shows 1,2 or 3, your call goes through and you can talk. If it shows 4,5 or 6, you can’t do your call. Repeat the rolling every five minutes while talking. If a 4,5 or 6 comes, your call breaks. Then try again rolling, until your call goes through.

4) Stop using YouTube on your computer. Don’t download files larger than 2MB. Don’t mail huge picture-files.

5)Do this for two weeks.

Of course, local business communication is excluded from this. I have almost no problem reaching my Liberian colleagues, unless their phones are not charged, or the towers are offline. So it’s not that bad. Just a bit.



1 Comment

  1. Eunice

    October 29, 2013

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    Sorry about the challenges you are facing. Is it really true about the die.that sounds like a big joke.

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