Capped internet is said to be dead. Day by day I see more and more people on various forums in South Africa migrating to an uncapped solution because of the convenience and simplicity the account provides – that simplicity pays off in a flat data rate where you can hammer the account for downloads and general internet usage as much as humanly possible. Afrihost is one of the companies that took a little while longer to gauge uncapped ADSL performance and sustainability back when MWEB launched the country’s first uncapped product in 2010, before coming up with its own product later that year. So with this in mind, they sent us a capped product to review. As you can imagine, I did a little bit of beard-scratching at first.

Capped products have the benefit of being bought for an exact amount of bandwidth – in the case for this review, 30GB – which means that provisioning capped users on your network is much easier. Unthrottled, unshaped internet is what any discerning customer really wants and with the pitfalls that go with choosing other ISPs and their (sometimes absurd) Fair Use Privileges, there’s almost no telling how an uncapped account will behave on any day of the week. Some companies pledge better service and performance, but in the end they’re all subject to the same limitations that Seacom places on them (at least, for those that use the Seacom backbone exclusively). This is why, for gamers at least, capped and unshaped accounts seem to be the best way to go.

What you want and need is predictable performance. MWEB has arguably provided that kind of service for a while now and before their backbone change, Afrihost was the only other decent alternative. For the purposes of this review, I’m no longer referring to Afrihost and its subsidiary, Axxess, as I now view them as one and the same company. So this review applies to Axxess customers as well, seeing as they’ve also been switched to the new data providers that Afrihost uses.

The account that Afrihost handed to us is a little different in that it’s not using the SAIX or Seacom backbone exclusively, both solutions which were used for capped and uncapped products in the past to bring prices down drastically. Instead the company now is partnered with MTN, supplanting users with data and international routing solutions from the MTN Business Fibre network. At the time of writing this move was still in progress and is/was due for completion on the 16th of October. Those of you who attended rAge or got their 5GB free data from Afrihost with their subscriptions will have been on the MTN backbone as well as will the rest of the company’s users. The reason behind this is a hedged bet by Afrihost, hoping that MTN will offer better performance, more reliability and, more importantly, a cheaper cost. And to a large extent, this part is true and a wise decision – cellular companies are making their moves towards offering a LTE data service, which necessitates huge, huge data pipes to ensure that the user experience doesn’t degrade.

This is what the local internet landscape should look like in 2014. Keep those fingers crossed and breaths held.

One could argue that cellular companies in South Africa are the busiest of all the ISPs. A large amount of their traffic is composed of data connections, what with everyone today using Whatsapp and BBM and accessing the net on their mobile phones. Where fixed-line ISPs today may have in the region of a million or more users, cellular companies have to deal with at least ten times that amount, suggesting that they are the better people to approach than a government parastatal like Telkom.

MTN’s solution offers more redundancy than any other previous re-sold account and routes traffic across multiple international backbones, just like MWEB. So on any given day, depending on the status of the major international lines, you could be routed between SAIX/SAT3, Seacom, EASSy or WACS. Multiple routing should also, in theory, divert your traffic to the correct undersea route based on the destination of the packets, which opens up the possibility for Afrihost to offer better latency for gamers through intelligent route layout.

Gaming on this account for locally-hosted titles was more than acceptable, with local pings never exceeding more than 90ms on a 1Mb/s line. Team Fortress 2 handled particularly well on the WAGE Mann vs Machine servers and I never had unplayable latency, hovering around 60ms for most local servers. Taking things overseas was equally acceptable, with most servers hovering around or below the 350ms range. Borderlands, Crysis 2, Far Cry 2 and Diablo III were running unfettered by my 1Mb/s connection and even Portal 2’s co-op player was an enjoyable romp with my brother playing on the PS3 in the same room.

Playing on the Diablo III servers was the most eye-opening experience, though. With my Telkom account there’s a certain amount of lag in the single-player and I always experienced it no matter what day of the week it was. Mind you, my default server was in the US by accident, but switching to Afrihost brought the lag right down, to the point where I couldn’t see it and it didn’t affect my game. I had one or two lock-ups while playing but that was more down to my wireless network adapter than anything.

Overall, gaming on the MTN backbone during my testing period was good and easily one of the better experiences I’ve had. Telkom has been likewise good for local games and occasionally I’ve had my international hiccups, but SAT3 continues to plod along without skipping a beat. Compared to that kind of reliability, Afrihost’s partnership with MTN will likely pay off very soon. That doesn’t seem to be the case for some users on Afrihost’s Uncapped packages which also now run off the MTN network: according to a few threads on MyBroadband (here, here and here) forums, there are a large number of users experiencing higher pings, slower speeds and hiccups in local latencies and international latencies. These teething issues should be sorted out in due time and I found a few of my own, but more on that later. How is the account for general usage?

Downloading applications, drivers and the odd Linux distro proved no trouble, topping out at 102KB/s whenever I was using a download manager. Through the browser the most I could obtain was 98KB/s which is quite respectable. The Steam client logged in very quickly during my testing and I found that browsing performance was acceptable for a 1Mb/s connection. Downloading games through Steam, however, varied according to which local server I was using. I got the best results using the MWEB servers, with the poorer performance of the IS server bottoming out at 60KB/s and staying there for indefinite periods of time. That may have been more on the IS side because I tested downloads again a week later and everything seemed normal. Perhaps a hiccup during the switch to the MTN network?

HTTP downloads and access was more or less speedy with no restrictions or throttling to speak of. Like MWEB, Afrihost proudly states that it does not throttle uncapped clients based on the protocol used but overall usage, with capped customers experiencing none if those limitations. Torrents and NZBs were working at 100KB/s with no issues or line drops to speak of. Local HTTP downloads from Web Africa’s WAGE server topped out on my 1Mb line at 110KB/s, as can be expected from a 1Mb connection. So far, so good.

TESTING METHODOLOGY:

I run a 1Mb/s line at home which has good quality copper and I’m less than 3km from my ADSL exchange (bear in mind that I’m also just about in the middle of the country by the coast). Speed tests were carried out on a 802.11n wireless connection to my Netgear router and were followed by a reboot between each test to avoid results being cached. Tracerts were done five times and the DNS cache was flushed between each run. Where possible I used the ISPs default DNS servers and compare them to results obtained using Google’s DNS servers (8.8.8.8 and 8.8.4.4). In my tests I found that which DNS servers I was using didn’t factor into my results due to the MTN backbone being connected to multiple undersea cables, while it does play into the results from other service providers like Telkom.

I won’t go too deeply into the latency results as the results speak for themselves, but something did strike me as a little… odd. My latency to anywhere in SA using my Telkom account is around 50ms. With Afrihost, testing to the MWEB server in Johannesburg yielded an average of 58ms, in line with my results from Telkom. Then I saw the 79ms average to Cape Town and I started scratching my beard. I’m closer to Cape Town than Joburg geographically, so I could only get those ping times if my packets were not being routed directly. The path my data was taking could be something like Jeffreys Bay > Port Elizabeth > Durban > Bloemfontein > Cape Town, because there’s an Internet Exchange server in Durban, but I had no way of finding that out for sure. With Telkom, the path goes along the coast and ends up taking 45ms to get to the MWEB server via the Cape Town Internet Exchange (CINX). I knew from later tests that local routing using my own methods showed that everything ran straight through MTN’s network, so that was the first odd thing I noticed.

The London speed tests raised  my eyebrows even more, hopping between two extremes: high ping and high speeds, or low ping and low speeds (I continued on with ten tests and it was a 50/50 split). That could only happen if my speed tests were being routed alternately along two backbones – the low latency ones probably being Seacom or EASSy and the higher latency ones either being SAIX or WACS. Everything else seemed to be in line with what I expected, even showing low 311ms pings to Optimum Online’s server in New York with good consistency.

In a run of Tracerts I did, I found that all traffic was being directed to the same server before leaving into the internet: qux-jh-dca-2.za-b.za.mtnbusiness.net. That was during my testing three weeks ago and today it varies. I can’t actually pin down which server is redirecting me to the internet with any certainty – it looks like I’m being routed to different backbones, right in line with my earlier assumptions and a sign that the network routing is beginning to pay off for Afrihost. I do know that all the network traffic was being routed through Afrihost’s Johannesburg’s server while they set up everything else and worked on their QOS and network shaping policies, which explains things a bit.

Some weird things did keep popping up, however. Tracerts to tomshardware.com link to a cached version of the site on an MWEB server, but other popular sites like Facebook and even Google don’t use the local servers available, only the international ones. As shown before, speed tests to various locations still don’t have consistent performance and now Speedtest.net is picking up my IP location in England, not South Africa. This was the chief reason why those on an Afrihost account that tried to purchase Microsoft’s Windows 8 upgrades online were met with a “This product is not available in your country” error, because the IP address block Afrihost is now using isn’t recognised as being in South Africa. Those of you on the @afrigamer accounts still use Seacom, which is why you aren’t being affected. You’ll be happy to note that routing to local servers is picked up entirely by MTN’s backbone with good consistency and pings always below 60ms today, so its likely that once the teething issues are sorted that the network will perform better than Telkom’s efforts.

International routing seems to be solid though and that’s down to the MTN engineers doing their job well. In one instance, I traced pings sent to a server in the UK and saw that I was being routed intentionally through Google’s 10GB ethernet servers in London. If you didn’t already know, Google has data centers deployed across the globe for some high-traffic countries that use customised Gigabit ethernet routers and fiber connections to ensure that Google’s services doesn’t suffer from slowdowns. Going through to servers in the US and China, it looks like WACS was used for the USA traffic while SAT3 took care of the servers I traced to Hong Kong, showing high latency and low speeds which indicates a pipeline which is operating at close to full capacity just about all the time.

Overall, I was impressed by the account on the new backbone. Generally, a switchover of this magnitude often brings dealbreakers and difficult obstacles with it. MWEB did it many years ago with the switch from SAIX to Seacom and there were plenty teething issues in the beginning. Afrihost have a good product here and one that performs, generally, far better than what Telkom can offer. Once Bitstream access is open to ISPs, they can offer even better services and speeds and when that happens, Gian Visser will be happy that he made the right choice to stick with MTN as a business and data partner.

So if you’re a gamer, the capped account is definitely the way to go. While Afrihost doesn’t host any game servers or offer a better product catered towards gamers, they do have a good backbone that routes you along international cables with reasonable intelligence. And it can only get better with time, possibly even beating out Seacom as the choice for gamers playing on international servers.

But what’s the story for uncapped users? You’re likely to have exactly the same general experience as uncapped users, which is a good thing for everyone involved. You will inevitably run into some shaping on protocols that hammer the bandwidth  but they will be useable regardless. Its the same with any ISP that offers an uncapped product, really and you’re well-catered for by MTN’s backbone. Considering that all four cellular providers intend on releasing LTE products next year and Telkom is only beginning to start the year-long  VDSL trial in limited areas, I expect more ISPs turning to the cellular networks for their data needs.

And Afrihost is right in front, crossing its fingers and hoping that it’s starting a trend that others will follow. Will this gamble work out in the long run? I think it will and I don’t think it’ll take all that long either. Give some time for the company to get back on its feet and you can expect better performance in the future.

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