When I first became a professional writer, I lived thirty kilometers outside Arusha, in northern Tanzania.

I had a DSL dial-up Internet connection at the time and the number would constantly drop because I was too far in the bush. Regular outages made responding to deadlines and time-sensitive emails so stressful that I contracted a local ISP to build me my own Internet tower in the back garden.

Yes, you read that correctly. I built my own Internet tower — and then I sold my neighbors bandwidth on my tower, like a true African entrepreneur. What can I say? It was a big tower.

After almost five years of working location independently, I’ve come to value speedy Internet as more important to my quality of life than regular electricity and running water.

I can handle long power outages, no hot water, no running water, spiders, less-than-optimal squat toilets, and long bus rides.

Give me Internet fast enough to stream the Pipeline Masters Surf Contest, do my tech4dev work online, and talk to my mum and dad face-to-face on Skype, and I’m a happy woman.

I bring this up because, having returned to Senegal from a few weeks of travel, I arrived back at the home office to find the quality of our Internet greatly compromised.

Emails and exchanges with my Dakar-based colleagues went something like this, (and I quote anonymously), ” Internet is sooo slow, though, it’s ridiculous, … it felt like I spent most of the day waiting for pages to load.”

I became so impatient at the slow connection (Skype would not even acknowledge I was online!) that I lost my temper, threw the toys out of my pram and threatened to leave the country. Yes, how embarrassing. When I calmed down, I decided on a better solution.

I’m not yet convinced that the worldwide web is a human right, but it’s certainly up there on my quality of life priorities.

So, in the interest of your own health and happiness, here’s what I’ve learned about how to optimize and thrive with really slow Internet. Here you have it:

3 Steps to Survive Slow Internet

1. Define Your Limit

Very simply, how slow is slow? Do you need to torrent two movies a day, stream music and keep your files on the Cloud? Or are you happy with fast Gmail and less-than-5-minute downloads from iTunes? Even if you’re just Skyping with your mum, where do you draw the line?

I know I need to take action to improve my slow Internet when:

  • I find myself multitasking because the page I’m working on won’t load.
  • I find myself staring at a screen that has trouble loading email.
  • My voice Skype calls are inaudible.

That’s where I draw the line. Your line is up to you.

2. Research the Market

This turns out to be crucial, since the Internet you want is often elusive and requires you to understand basic concepts about mobile technology in developing countries.

Quite simply, it’s on the way up. A lot.

So, there are basically two reasons behind Internet suddenly getting slow:

1. Physical interferences like storms, floods, earthquakes, bad wires, bad signal, and so on.

2. Rapid scale-up by an Internet Service Provider (ISP) that means that more people are trying to get a piece of a limited amount of bandwidth available from a tower.

Now that most ISPs are also Mobile Network Operators, and that smart phones are replacing laptops as our preferred way to get online, you see the infrastructure challenge signaled by your bandwidth grinding to a halt.

I have recently come to accept that having a part-time assistant is a fantastic lifestyle hack for expats living in developing countries. I’ve had a local personal assistant since 2009, and it has given me up to 30% more free time and freedom from monotonous and time-consuming errands.

You can do this market research yourself or (and this would be my choice) have your assistant do it for you. Either way, you want to know:

  • The top five ISPs, and the type of Internet connections they offer. Prioritize USB key connections, as these are mobile and much cheaper than fixed routers — they’re also easier to bring into the office to fix.
  • How much their biggest, fastest, most unlimited Internet package is per month. Ideally, your ISP will offer you a VIP package that gets you additional bandwidth at a fixed monthly rate. If there are tiers of service offered, learn about them and pick what’s right for you.
  • What kind of customer support do these ISPs offer? Is there a helpline? Often there will be a phone number to call, but no one will answer. Test the customer support out to see how helpful and proactive they are at problem-solving. I like to select ISPs who have a cheerful staff focused on solving my problems. Ideally, this is easy to find.

3. Cover Your Bases

At this point, go out and purchase the hardware that the top two or three ISPs offer and that meets your needs. You want options here. You want to be able to switch between different networks operated by the ISPs whenever one gets too slow.

A word of warning: now that Huawei seems to make most USB Internet keys, the software that will operate one network’s key will likely interfere with your Internet alternative until you uninstall the old ISP’s program.

In other words, if I’m using a Vodafone USB key for an MTN USB key, I’ll probably have to uninstall the Vodafone Internet software before the MTN USB key will work on my computer.

Another thing: If you have a Mac (and in that case, you probably know this already), you might need to physically take your computer to the ISP to get them to install the software that allows your USB key to connect to the Internet. I’ve not yet found a way around this, but I’m trying.

One thing that can help as you’re covering your bases is to cultivate a personal contact at your preferred ISP. You want to be able to pick up the phone and call someone when $20 of credit disappears off of your account and have someone tell you “problem solved.” This might take time, but it’s worth it.

There you have it: the “3 Steps to Surviving Slow Internet.”

Use them to optimize your time online so you can get things done faster and use that extra time to relax and enjoy.

May you never have to suffer slow connection speed again.

Got a secret quick-fix to improve your Internet connection? Let us know in the comments!

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