Pigeons are faster than DSL

A South African IT company got so fed up with the national telco's notoriously poor Internet service that they decided to set up a race that pitted the telco's network against a carrier pigeon. The pigeon won.

Now, this is very funny, but I think that over pigeon-traversable distances in which latency isn't an issue, the pigeon will always win. A random web-page promises that a carrier pigeon can bear loads of up to 1.7 oz or about 48.2g. My postal scale says that my 64GB SD card weighs 2.05g. Which means that a pigeon could carry 23 64GB SD cards, or 1.472 terabytes. In the Telkom race, the pigeon traversed 40km in 2 hours.

I think that even the best commercial ISP in the world would be hard-pressed to deliver 736GB/h between two customer DSL end-points. Likewise, I think that even the greatest pigeon on the world would be hard-pressed to deliver even one bit of information from Cape Town to New York.

A Durban IT company pitted an 11-month-old bird armed with a 4GB memory stick against the ADSL service from the country's biggest web firm, Telkom.

Winston the pigeon took two hours to carry the data 60 miles - in the same time the ADSL had sent 4% of the data.

Telkom said it was not responsible for the firm's slow internet speeds.

The idea for the race came when a member of staff at Unlimited IT complained about the speed of data transmission on ADSL.

He said it would be faster by carrier pigeon.

"We renown ourselves on being innovative, so we decided to test that statement," Unlimited's Kevin Rolfe told the Beeld newspaper.

SA pigeon 'faster than broadband' (via Engadget)


  1. 40km = 24.8548 miles

    After I heard this during Morning Edition (I think during the return) I got to thinking about the security issues and delivery hazards (think falcon). But still it was entertaining!

  2. For those wondering, the transfer speed (DSL) comes to:

    Payload = 4% of 4GB = 163.84MB
    Time: 2 Hours
    Transfer Rate: 186.4135Kb/s

    At that speed, to download a move (or linux iso, etc) at 700MB (5734400Kb) would take 8.54 hours.

    Praise the pidgeon all you want, that is still one SLOW internet connection.

  3. Jon Bentley described a similar case from more than 20 years ago; its included in his compilation of ACM columns “Programming Pearls”. In that case, the journey was in California, from one national research lab to another. The pigeon won there, too – not a huge suprise given that the link was something like a modem running at 9.6kbits/sec.

  4. Standard computer science aphorism:
    “Never underestimate the bandwidth of a 747 filled with mag tape.”

    Needs some modernization, but the point is obviously still valid.

  5. Of course, the amount of info the pigeon can carry is entirely dependent on the sort of technology it’s carrying.

    A decade or two ago it would have to carry a 3.5″ HD just to transfer a few hundred megabytes.

  6. I love the ISPs response, “Telkom said it was not responsible for the firm’s slow internet speeds”. Why would they have anything to do with data transmission speeds across their lines? ;)

  7. Mmmmm, the first high-bandwidth data transmission medium I can bake into a tasty pie!

    -abs isn’t quite over his obsession with eating every animal he can yet, sorry

  8. Security is not an issue. You can easily find free strong cryptography tools. And for the pigeons, you have to consider the time it takes to write and to read the SD cards. Several years ago I heard the same story, but it was related to diskettes and trucks. But it is still interesting.

  9. Now, this is very funny, but I think that over pigeon-traversable distances in which latency isn’t an issue, the pigeon will always win.

    Intriguing insight. Are these pigeons compatible with pre-Intel Macs?

  10. 40Km in 2 hours!? That’s what my dad would have called a “soup pigeon” if he were still alive, referring to the fact that this pigeon would effectively end up being cooked for soup at the first occasion after such a poor performance. Delicious soup, by the way, but I digress.

    My dad, the last in a string of generations of pigeon breeders and racing pigeon amateurs (in Belgium, the home of modern pigeon racing), would routinely clock his pigeons at 60 to 90 km/hour (37 to 56 miles/hour), over a distance of 400 to 800 kilometers, depending on wind direction and weather conditions. Easily.

    Winston sucks.

  11. I live north of Toronto in a rural area, and Bell’s DSL service to our house is now quite terrible. A recent storm knocked our service out for days and after it returned we now get 0.3 to 0.5kbps at best.

    Send me a goddamn carrier pigeon, please.

  12. I’m sure I remember a story in which a research lab approached Comcast for advice on the quickest way to move several terabytes of data from their data collection station to a main lab on the other side of the USA.

    Apparrently Comcast mulled the request for a few days, then simply replied “FedEx”.

  13. But how do they train pigeons to fly to certain places? How does a pigeon know if it’s supposed to fly to Capetown or New York City?

  14. Your number are off there in the post. You say 40 km and then quote 60 miles. I believe the actual distance was around 80 km though.

  15. You’ll need to include transfer time to save and retrieve the data on the stick, too, otherwise, it’s not a fair comparison. Still, it would take a P3 to slow it down enough to reach Telkom levels.

  16. Here in NYC, we’ve got a burgeoning population of hawks that I think might lead to an unacceptable rate of packet loss for pigeon-net.

  17. Careful what you wish for there, guys. Have you seen the EULA for pigeons? Apparently, you have to FEED them…

  18. Following the lead of US Telecom lobbyists, Telkom announced that speed was a unreliable metric, and demanded a retest based on typical broadband applications.

  19. The best part about Telkom is that- if you click through and read the whole story- they are quoted as explicitly blaming the customer for the issue:

    “Several recommendations have, in the past, been made to the customer but none of these have, to date, been accepted,” Telkom’s Troy Hector

    Also: #13 — awesome bit.

  20. Falcon-related bit-loss wouldn’t be problem if you had intelligent routers redirecting flow away from risky connections.

    I’m more worried about the possibility of Eve capturing data going between Alice and Bob by simply leaving out a plate of sunflower seeds.

  21. A similar observation has long been made about interstellar communication. Byte for byte, sub-light physical mail packets may be more efficient than energy-based signals over very long distances – especially if you can add some AI to create “bracewell probes”. This is the kind of thing the SETI people think about.

    Robo-Pigeons in spaaaaaaaace!


  22. #10- IIRC, the Engadget link mentions that the pigeon made the trip in one hour and it took another hour to download the data off the drive.

    So, argueably, it probably took three hours to prepare and transfer the data since they don’t seem to indicate the time it took to write to the flash drive in the first place.

    Yeah, Winston only went twice as fast, which still doesn’t measure up to your dad’s pigeons’ speeds, but it’s closer.

  23. Just some background on this story: We have the worst internet and phone service in the world here. Not just the slow speeds, we pay through our noses for data as well. A 40MB data package at 300kbps costs R70 a month. The highest package you can get is a 3GB 700kbps deal for R600 a month. Just to put this into perspective, the average income in South Africa is R600 a month. That’s right, you get a whole 3 Gigabytes of data (up- and down-load) for a months’ salary. So this may have been a PR stunt, but it shines the spotlight on our useless government (Telkom is government owned and run). When our telecoms minister, Ivy Matsepe-Casaburri (commonly known as “Poison Ivy), died a few months ago, there were nation-wide celebrations.

    See http://www.mydigitallife.co.za/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=1045433&Itemid=97 for more info.

  24. The old comparison I saw for something like this was vacuum tube systems. I would guess they would still be faster than any other network for data transmission.

  25. Of course security would still be an issue. In this case you would have to worry about hawkers instead of hackers.

  26. Couldn’t the south Afrikans just reverse enginering aliens’ networking technology? Damnit, they had that giant ship parked over there for years now.

  27. @ #21
    “Would this be an African or European pigeon?”


    Labor laws in South Africa say you can only use one European carrier pigeon for every 74 African Pigeons. You also have to have at least 5 disabled pigeons and about 65% have to be female.

    The female ones also have get two weeks off every time they lay an egg.

  28. @ #35 As someone who has worked in the ISP industry in SA I’ve often received these pearls of wisdom from Telkom. Normally they follow something like this:

    1. Tell your clients to turn of Windows Update (as this _apparently_ uses up lots of your bandwidth)

    2. Throttle your clients non-HTTP usage (which Telkom already does their side) so website load faster at the expensive of other traffic type.

    3. Block youtube and other traffic intensive websites.

    Guess why ” … none of these have, to date, been accepted,”

    @ #40 It was privitised a number of years ago.

  29. Live 100km west of edmonton,CA the only fast(??) internet here is via explornet satelite 100kb down,25kb up. Have no pigeons but lots of magpies, they are large and black and white, should be able to use laser writer reader to code the birds. White part for send and black for read, great savings in weight almost impossible to run out of space and same up and download speed

  30. Anonymous54

    Please be joking. Carrier pigeons are just homing pigeons, with some time on the clock.

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