This review is written by someone who has used virtually every ISP in Zimbabwe since the year 2000 and has the battle scars to boot. This is not so much a technical review of the product but a user’s review of how the product delivers. This is deliberately so because at the end when all is said and done no matter how many bells and whistles a product has if it does not deliver on the basic function it’s useless. No point in having a car with electric windows, ABS brakes, air bags, traction control if you are always have to push start it. So over the years I have used various services by Telone (Comone), ZOL, Mweb, Powertel, Ecoweb and Africom, starting with dialup and evolved to various wireless formats and ADSL. This review also covers the service as a whole provided by Utande and delivers a verdict based on our experience of using the service.
So as a consumer what do I want? That’s easy, namely (i) Speed, (ii) Reliability and Consistency, and (iii) Service and Support, and possibly in that order as well. Utande seem to understand this as in their press release of the uMAX launch they made the following statement:
“Zimbabwe’s latest Broadband Internet offering providing unrivalled connection quality, true broadband speeds and unbeatable service for households and small businesses, has been unveiled in Harare………uMAX promises an exceptional and very different Broadband Internet customer experience. For example, super-fast 1 Mbps connections for all customers; 24 hour customer services manned by real humans, not machines; an expertly managed network for maximum up time and superior and consistent quality; and multiple” (my highlights)advertisement
On their website Utande are more specific saying you get “High speed access to the Internet at 512 kbps or 1Mbps”. That statement though introduces some ambiguity, is 512kbps as per their press release “true broadband”?
Zimbabwe’s ISPs generally have a poor record of over-promising and under-delivering. I vividly recall purchasing a CDMA modem from a local ISP. Initially the experience was superlative, experiencing what at the time access speeds better than what their competitors offered. This joy unfortunately was short-lived as within 6 months the speed had slowed to a mind numbing crawl and the ‘time out’ error message became the most common sight in my browser. Exacerbating my fury was the fact that the same service provider happened to offer a phone service on the same platform. Newspaper reports indicated that their network capacity with a capacity for 20,000 phones now carried twice this figure.
We received the uMAX unit mid-July and over the trial period we tested the uMAX connection using 8 devices more or less concurrently (3 laptops 1 PC and 4 smartphones). Due to the uncertain definition of what broadband is and for the purposes of simplicity and convenience we took it to mean download speed with of 1Mbps.
Here’s a quick technical run down of the product. uMax as has been noted before is a WiMAX product. At the customer end Utande offers the option of an outdoor or indoor unit. Outdoor units are in the form of an antenna that can be placed on the roof of the premises and is less than 2 meters in height. For the indoor unit which is the one we tested, you get a wireless modem, a BreezeMAX Si 4000 Premium model to be exact which features a reset/reboot button, two Ethernet ports (LAN ports), two phone ports (VOIP) and a power socket, two generous fold-out antennas for WiMAX communication (measuring 21.5cm x 5.5cm) and give you the impression that the giraffe theme is rather ubiquitous. The front part of the unit features LED status indicators (lights) for power, Ethernet status, WiMAX signal strength (3 lights). Utande support indicate that the units broadcast range is about 15m and as with any wireless is likely to vary depending on environmental factors.
The Usain Bolt test
A consistently good speed and in this case the “true broadband speeds and unbeatable service,” promised is possibly at the top of every users list. To gauge the speed of the unit we tested it on a daily basis over 20 days. We also did a direct performance comparison between the ADSL connection and uMax. Now since we are using Telone’s silver package which gives download/upload speeds of 512kbps/256kbps. So to compare like for like we can simply multiply the ADSL speeds by a factor of 2 to see how they hold up to the uMAX speeds. These in turn would be the speeds one is likely to get under Telone’s Gold package.
Here is a sample of the results for the ADSL and uMAX tests obtained on the 25th of July 2012:
|1||Cape Town (South Africa)|
Broadly the laptop results returned where close to the 1Mbps broadband benchmark, but the 0.7Mbps result is rather worryingly not close enough. Over the course of the testing period the results tended to range between 0.6Mbps- 1.2Mbps with the more distant servers such as San Francisco on the lower end and closer ones in Johannesburg and Cape Town on the higher end. The phone results consistently scored above 1Mbps and were generally superior to the laptop results suggesting other system factors affecting the result. What does this mean from a user experience perspective? Our experience using Youtube and Skype (Video calling) on the laptop was better than anything we have experienced on the ADSL connection, or the various CDMA, 3G and 4G services we alternatively use during the course of our work. We rarely encountered any buffering or breaking when viewing videos and the Skype experience was equally smooth. It must be noted though that the user experience of the ADSL connection with Skype audio and video calls was generally as good as uMAX.
Over the course of the trial testing with Speedtest, uMAX’s performance generally was graded a C and in exceptional cases would score a B. The grade C grade according to Speedtest implies the following “Acceptable. Your VoIP quality will suffer some, and you will have a disadvantage in many online games. Most streaming media will be fine.” And the B score implies that “your connection should work well for any Internet application. Some online games may not perform optimally”.
Service and Support
For the first 2 weeks or so whenever we used the unit it had a tendency to randomly drop the Wi-Fi session and this was not power related. Once this happened a single user needed to re-login to activate connectivity for all laptops and phones using WiFi. As you can imagine this was a rather bizarre and irritating occurrence. We notified Utande about this and their support staff suggested that this could be a result of the wireless unit being idle and not communicating with any device. This they said was a security feature to ensure that the connection is not abused by unauthorized persons using legitimately connected devices. Given the number of devices in use and the hive of activity in the office this did not seem a plausible explanation. Depending on the settings idle time was defined as between 30 minutes to 1 hour. Our experience on the other hand showed that a user would be kicked out even when they were in the middle of a frantic Internet sessions. Utande then theorised that it could a be signal strength issue and suggested us placing the unit close to the window as the signal there tends to be stronger due to the reflective qualities of glass, we experimented with this for about 2 days with no positive change. Another problem we faced was that you could have a phone actively connected to the Internet and your laptop failing to login.
After the change in position had failed to remedy the situation Utande technicians suspected it might either be a faulty unit or that we were in an area with a very weak signal and therefore they would need to install an outdoor antenna. They duly came at the appointed hour and the signal strength hypothesis went out the window very quickly as the units 3 LED lights which indicate signal strength (1 light on = weak signal, and 3 lights on = strong signal) were all on. After logging into the units configuration panel the problem was solved. The units come with a default setting of 10 users but our particular baby was set at 5. So to accommodate more users she had had been randomly kicking out active users once the 5 user limit was reached. Once the figure was increased the problem vanished like old Zim dollars.
From this experience Utande gets top marks for willingness of their support staff to assist and their technician’s competence. However, troubleshooting this problem (given the simplicity of the solution) which took the best part of a week suggests that the support staff need additional familiarisation with the WiMAX modems that are being deployed. After this problem was resolved we have experienced no loss in connectivity or any degrading of performance to this day.
If we take 1Mbps to be the baseline “true broadband” speed then Utande still has some work to do.
In July we were also impressed by Utande informing their customers prior to some maintenance work which would result in lack of connectivity, this may seem minor but in an industry when the norm is customers suddenly finding themselves failing to connect and not getting any joy from customer support this is refreshing.
In terms of uMAX’s consistency and reliability of delivering broadband performance and top uptime, after using the service for a month we are still reserving judgement as a longer time frame of say 3 months would provide a better basis to form a more concrete opinion. Also it would help to review performance over the longer term of say a year. But for the month that we have used the service other than the user limit issue we have always been able to connect with one device or the other and the speeds have been in the range noted before.
uMAX is offering a special Two for One deal for new customers. For example with megaMAX you will get an extra 2GB and with monsterMAX an extra 12GB, essentially you get a ‘dollar for two’ deal.
uMAX indoor access devices are sold for $200 including VAT, with the outdoor access device retailing at $475, including installation, with the WiFi router and VAT. And with the data bundles priced range from $70 to $240 uMAX is certainly not for everyone. For an entry level $270 (indoor modem on the megaMAX package) you can get a TU25 modem and 9GB from Econet, or a modem and unlimited access for8 months from Powertel (as per their Hoza 30-30 promotion)
Marketing and Social Media
From their launch events to the release of media material both in the print and online press, to the deisgn and launch of their website Utande and we say this without prejudice has been sleek and professional. The use of social media stands out both in terms of usage and the level of interactivity. None of the other ISP’s are as visible in the social media space. An example of this is how Utande ran an interactive game on their Facebook page and on their website called “Where is Max?”. Users then engaged in an interesting and engaging game of finding Max the brands ‘mascot’ if you like. Also the Youtube videos explaining the product were rather delightful but the irony is to enjoy them you would need a broadband connection, a bit of a catch 22 situation if you are on a slower platform. Utande also cleverly used the Olympics to tag their brand to the Zimbabwean effort at the Olympics.
So what’s the lowdown?
Based on our experience so far if there is one lasting analogy to compare Utande to the rest of the local ISP’s, it is the Olympic men’s 100m final with Usain Bolt leaving everyone else trailing behind. In terms of sheer speed ADSL does offers a comparable service though one without the same level of consistency in terms of the speeds attained. And as attested to by our Speedtest results and YouTube and Skype experiences uMAX pretty much delivers all the time. In terms of affordability if uMAX was a stock it’s the proverbial ‘not for the widows and orphans’ type. If you are on a budget there are other more effective solutions to get online but for the extra dollars you get Bolt like blistering speed, top notch service and peace of mind. Having said that the cynic in me realises that Utande are still wooing customers, so we are still getting the chocolates, flowers and romantic dinners which may not be the case 6 months to a year from now. For now we give them the benefit of the doubt.