Battle of the bandwidth

31 March 2008

No discussion on the internet in South Africa would be complete without someone complaining about the bandwidth problem.

This is entirely justified. Bandwidth shortage and high costs have been a thorn in the side of South African users since the very beginning, making the internet unbearably slow for many, and completely unaffordable for most.

In South Africa, bandwidth costs are astronomically high: UCT spends about R7.8 million a year to stay online. Despite the fact that the university currently buys more internet bandwidth than any other South African tertiary institution, it is still not enough to cope with demand.

At present, the university's bandwidth is 32 megabits, or four megabytes per second. This is a tiny fraction of the bandwidth available to educational institutions in the US and the UK, for example, where some universities have access up to 2.5 gigabits per second.

UCT's internet connection is simply too small to accommodate such luxuries as large downloads or streaming media, like the videos on YouTube, for example, which users in many other countries take for granted. Downloading this content can slow down internet connectivity across the university to unmanageable speeds.

To combat this, Information and Communication Technology Services (ICTS) has implemented Packeteer Packetshaper, a network appliance that controls the distribution of bandwidth between different protocols, such as the web, email and chat.

"Most of UCT's bandwidth is allocated for web browsing", explains Leon Alexander, projects co-ordinator at ICTS, "but with further limitations within the web browsing class, like restrictions on streaming. Between 10 and 15% is allocated to email, and the remainder is shared between lesser-used protocols. Peer-to-peer file sharing applications such as eDonkey and applications such as Skype are completely blocked."

An additional measure to keep bandwidth accessible to all is the SupaTsela Project's implementation of the new Microsoft Internet Security and Acceleration (ISA), a firewalling and security server that requires user authentication before the internet can be accessed.

"The ISA system curbs abuse," says Alexander, "because abusers change their downloading habits, knowing that download volumes are being monitored. As a result, internet accessibility for users has improved. We're doing all we can to keep it usable."

Alexander explains that ICTS must be ever vigilant against internet abuse.

"Applications, especially file sharing networks, are constantly changing," he says. "We have to be on the lookout for security holes and new applications as they appear."

The system allows for ICTS to compile a list of the top 100 bandwidth users, but at present, there is no official procedure in place to take action against offenders.

"We need to sort out that process," says Alexander, "but for now, we just give them a friendly warning, because not all heavy users are abusers."

A recent positive development was UCT's move to the new GEN3 network this year, which gave the university a bandwidth boost at the same cost as last year. There has been an 18% increase in backbone bandwidth, and a 28% increase in international bandwidth. Unfortunately, improvements are rarely noticed. The extra bandwidth is quickly absorbed, leaving users ever hungry for more.

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