Why is the Internet so Slow?

Rochelle Terman
November 05, 2012
Image of a map of the undersea cables wrapping the coasts of Africa.

This past week, I was in Nairobi, Kenya attending a Technology and Human Rights Consultation hosted by Amnesty International. The consultation aimed to address the double-edged nature of the growth of digital tools in human rights activism. As our agenda put it, “there is a new human rights struggle emerging—one where human rights are both fought for, and violated, in the digital world.”

While the consultation presented a number of interesting problems, concerns, and issues, there was one thing that lingered in my head throughout: Why on earth is the Internet connection so slow?
We have all asked this question at one time or another: on travels to “less-developed” regions outside the United State, in remote areas within our own borders, or while struggling with AirBears during its less-than-perfect moments.
For most of us, it's a rhetorical question born from frustration. Indeed this is how this question started for me while in Kenya. But as the Internet connection wore down and my frustration grew (we were at a technology consultation after all), I began to think of this question as something bigger and more profound: Why is the Internet connection so weak in places like Nairobi? What economic, political, and historical forces shape the development of digital infrastructure in different areas of the world? And what impact do these divergent trajectories have on access—not only access to the internet, but access to information, speech, social participation and economic mobility?
For most us outside the engineering world, the question of why the Internet is so slow is akin to asking why the sky is blue: surely there is a physical answer out there, but because it is so complex and outside of our control, the question takes on a metaphysical quality.
What I’d like to suggest is that everyone who uses the Internet—and digital Humanists in particular—should be concerned with this question. Not only should we be concerned, but we should be empowered to investigate and intervene in it, to have debates about it, to develop a scholarly community around it. 
Because, simply put, the answer is this: governance. And anyone who is interested in governance, from neoliberal economists to Foucaultian philosophers, should be interested in the governance of Internet infrastructure.

The Internet is slow for different reasons in different places. In the United States, the problem is usually “bandwidth hogs:” the five percent or so of users who are using about 50 percent of bandwidth, sharing movies and playing games online, rendering the connection slow for everyone else.


But in many other parts of the world, the problem is not with the users per se but with the infrastructure of the Internet itself. In South Africa, for instance, Internet speed is so bad that some companies have taken to pigeons rather than using email. (Seriously.)


The shortage of bandwidth in South Africa has to do with the dismal fiber optic cabling system. And the root of this problem, like most infrastructure problems, lies in political struggle. In this case it is the political struggle behind government-IST licensing agreements. According to Authur Goldstruck, who carried out a study on South Africa’s internet problem, governments’ attitudes towards the importance of Internet access plays a big role. “[I]t’s those vested interests, or policy interests, that tend to hold us back. It becomes a political process, instead of a technology and licensing process," says Goldstuck.

For most of its history, the Internet has been shaped mainly by these national-level laws and policies. But recently this has begun to change as Internet governance becomes more central to the international agenda. By its very nature as a “network of networks,” the Internet is highly vulnerable to the influence of international regimes, and more and more scholars are categorizing the Internet under the jurisdiction of international law.

In 2006, the United Nations Secretary General convened the first Internet Governance Forum (IGF) as a multi-stakeholder policy dialogue to “foster the sustainability, robustness, security, stability and development of the internet.” This week, the Seventh Annual IGF Meeting will be held in Baki, Azerbaijan under the main theme “Internet Governance for Sustainable Human, Economic and Social Development.”


The irony that the IGF is being held in one of the most repressive countries for freedom of speech on the Internet is not lost on some human rights activists. “This is a country where the government intercepts individuals’ correspondence at a whim, imprisons bloggers, and portrays social-networkers as mentally ill,” says Amnesty International’s Max Tucker.


In addition to freedom of speech (which has been covered on this forum, both from a technological and human rights perspective) the IGF will have a major impact on the development of infrastructure and access. Indeed, there already appears to be a consensus among participants that IGF has a duty to further the development of and access to Internet infrastructure.

Why is the Internet so slow? The answer is developing—very literally—as we speak.

Rochelle Terman is a Graduate Student Researcher at the Townsend Center for the Humanities. She is pursuing a Ph.D. in Political Science.