Sunday, January 1, 2012

Internet in KSA

KSA - Internet 

As I mentioned in my Peruvian blog last year, the internet is very important to me while I am away from home. It is my only link with home, family and friends.

Internet access is provided by Al Jazeera in our accommodation block. The downstairs area has been designated the recreation area with plastic garden furniture, a table-tennis table and a pool table. It is a cavernous room with large pillars which support the building. Running down some of these pillars are all the toilet pipes from the dwellings above. When upstairs toilets are flushed, one can hear the merry gurgling of water, soggy toilet paper and waste matter rushing by on its way to the underground septic tank.

The recreation area is a non-smoking area and as such there are no ashtrays. This does not deter the smokers (99% of the teachers) in the least. A variety of containers have been pressed into service as ashtrays; bottles, cold-drink cans and various lids are filled to overflowing with cigarette butts with a tasteful sprinkling of butts and ash on the carpet. The area has no ventilation or windows and consequently smells permanently of stale tobacco smoke and stale farts. The couple of waste-paper baskets are also filled to overflowing and there is an interesting variety of litter spread across the floor; paper, plastic bottles, bottle tops, cans, wrappers and plastic bags filled with miscellaneous crap and the ghost of meals past. Various unidentifiable liquids have stained the carpet with Rorschach-like patterns. One wonders about the home environment and upbringing of some of our colleagues!

This then was where I initially accessed the internet when I got to Al-Baha. Several of my colleagues had their own Wi-Fi routers from STC (Saudi Telecommunications) which gave them internet access in their rooms. This clearly was the way to go. The only problem was that to purchase an STC router one needed an iqama, the Saudi ID and work-permit, which I had not yet received. I spoke to my next-door neighbor and asked him if I could share his router until I was able to get my own. He agreed and I had reasonable internet access in my room, although the signal from his wireless router was somewhat attenuated by the several walls in between. Also, if he went to bed before me that was the end of my internet for the night.

I then went to STC to get a sim card for my BB (Blackberry) and to get my BB service activated. An iqama was needed for this too, but a colleague kindly used his iqama to get me up and running. There are some problems with BB in KSA; the Facebook app does not work here, neither does Twitter, AppWorld and various other downloaded applications. HTML emails are displayed as text which means you have to sift through several pages of text to find the body of your message. However, apart from these caveats it (BBM and internet) worked reasonably well, and since I was on a prepaid plan they simply docked my airtime balance each month to fund my BB service.

In due course I got my iqama and immediately went to STC to get my router. When I got home I discovered that my apartment did not receive a very good 3G signal – I could only pick up an EDGE network which is dead slow. However, I persevered and eventually found a location where I got HSPA+ (fast) and I happily surfed with my own router.

I did, however, experience huge differences in network speed from day to day; some weeks I had really fast access where I could download a 1gig movie in 15 minutes, and then for several days I would be stuck with effectively no internet access. Each time this happened I could be seen wandering around morosely with my router in hand trying to find the magic <ahem> 3G-spot.

In December I decided I would buy myself an iPhone 4s for Christmas. As part of the package I was given 250meg of data per month for 6 months. I figured that would be more than enough. The reality was that I had used my month’s allocation within 3 days! So I returned to STC with a view to purchasing more bandwidth. In this I was totally unsuccessful and the only winner was the language barrier. The consultant I spoke to (the only one with any English) eventually told me to buy SR200 of airtime which would, he said, give me 5 gig of bandwidth. In retrospect, I suspect he told me this just to make me go away. Using airtime for data is undoubtedly the most expensive was to access the internet; I was paying about SR1.80 per meg of data and 24 hours later my SR200 was gone (SR 1.00 = ZAR 2.00)

This last weekend we went to Tief (a large town a couple of hundred kilometers from here) and when I spotted an STC office I decided to pop in and get some advice from another consultant. This worthy told me that I could buy 1 gig bandwidth for SR100 – all I needed to do was to top up my balance to fund the data purchase and come back to him so that he could activate the service. By the time I got back with my airtime voucher (they don’t sell air-time at STC, you need to go to a cafĂ© or supermarket) they had closed for prayer. 

After prayer I went in and we tapped in the voucher code. When the SR100 did not reflect on his computer screen, the consultant (Abdullah) concluded that the money had gone towards funding my BB service. Although I assured him that my BB balance was enough to cover this month’s subscription he insisted that I would need to buy another SR100 for my iPhone. This I did and after entering the code, he found to his consternation that my balance still hadn’t been updated on his computer, although my phone now showed a balance of SR225. He drifted around the store seeking advice from the other consultants who were apparently just as baffled (or who were simply disinterested) as he was. At this point he conceded defeat and said that he would consult with his manager after the weekend and get back to me. Much to my surprise Abdullah has not to date contacted me, and the saga continues.

In the meanwhile I am being viewed with great suspicion by some of my online contacts who are muttering darkly and hinting that I am avoiding them when they are online. Hah! My wish for them is to have STC as a service provider and to deal with a non-English speaking Arabic consultant, instead of Vodacom or Telkom. Then again, tis the season of goodwill so I wouldn’t really wish that on them. Ho-ho-ho…