ICT Players Skeptical on Uganda’s 2019 Target of 10M Additional Internet Users

Players in the Information, stuff Communication and Technology (ICT) sector have cast skepticism on Uganda’s ability to hit the target of 10 million new internet users target by 2019 as set by a World Economic Forum (WEF) project.

The project which was adopted during the previous WEF meeting in Kigali for the Northern corridor countries of Uganda, here Kenya, generic Rwanda and South Sudan aims at extending internet access to 25 million new users in the next two years in the four countries.

According to Eric White who heads the project, the target is hinged on the idea that internet is increasingly becoming a critical enabler for social and economic development across the globe.

But during the Internet for All forum that was organized by Uganda Communication Commission in conjunction with World Economic Forum on Tuesday, some stakeholders said the project could be hindered by numerous barriers.

Wim Vanhelleputte the CEO of MTN Uganda explained that for Uganda to get more internet users, issues to do with proper appropriation of frequencies as well as smart phone penetration must be dealt with.

He said that the latest statistics show that only 15% of Ugandans use smartphone devices that are internet enabled which he said is still very low.

“If you don’t have the right devices that are data capable, you can’t access the internet,” Vanhelleputte told participants.

“The cost and reliability of the device is also important which requires long term vision on customs clearance and local production of devices so the costs can go down,” he added

He also raised the issue of spectrum which he said determines how much ISPs (Internet Service Providers) spend on coverage.

“Spectrum is a scarce commodity, and we need to have the right frequencies assigned to the right people who are willing to invest and increase coverage. Higher frequencies demand more masts to spread coverage.”

Uganda’s 3G network covers 7% of the national geographical area and 27% of the population according to UCC. The biggest population coverage is in the Central region (48%), West (20%), East (21%) and North (16%).

Kyle Spencer, the Director of Uganda Internet Exchange Point told ChimpReports that infrastructure remains a big barrier in bringing internet costs down.

This, he said is largely because of content gaps with majority of the users in Uganda still relying on foreign based content like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Amazon.

“If we are sitting here and access Facebook and the data has to come from a location from Europe, how does it get here? It goes through undersea cables to Mombasa and here,” Spencer said.

“Companies that build the fibre will have to charge you for renting this infrastructure. It’s therefore expensive to deliver internet here. For companies like Facebook to bring content closer to the region, we need to they will need infrastructure and better policies in place.”

It is true that even the 20% of Ugandans who have access to the internet, affordability of internet services remains a challenge with ISPs charging high costs for mobile data bundles. An average Ugandan will spend at least Ush 2,000 daily on internet but with limited access to social networks.

For someone earning a monthly salary of Ush 500,000 (USD 138) they will spend 12% (Ush 60,000 which is USD 17) of their earnings on internet.

Vanhelleputte admits that internet is not yet affordable but blames it on the fact that the usage of data in Uganda is still far low compared to voice services.

“Telecommunications is a volumes game. We need more volumes of data running on our networks in order to have the internet costs go down,” he said.

He said MTN has managed to reduce the minute cost of a voice call from Ush 400 in 2007 to Ush 40 today which he said was UE to the explosive multiplication in volumes of calls over the years.

Like Spencer, Vanhelleputte says content is another limitation to driving the demand for internet among those who are still offline. “We can have wonderful Apps but if they are not relevant to the ordinary Ugandan who is in agriculture, they will not need internet.”

The Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of ICT Vincent Bagire said that the drivers to access of internet such as content must be addressed.

“The challenge is to create content that is relevant to the citizen. If that’s done, the usage will be automatic as was the case with Mobile money.

Government didn’t need to sensitive people on using mobile money because citizens found it to be a necessity,” Bagire said.

Government is currently working on a National Spectrum Management Policy and the Infrastructure Sharing Policy in order to address the ambiguity on how to acquire and utilize the spectrum.

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