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Saturday, 14 March 2015

Uganda’s journey in leveraging internet access through NBI; but forgot the local Citizen

By Sam Agona 
In 2008 Uganda launched the National Backbone Project under Ministry of ICT. This project involved laying optic fiber cables interconnecting major towns around the country and was expected to lead to enormous benefits including but not limited to low cost access to connectivity and near ubiquitous connectivity within Uganda. However till date, this seems not to have materialized as expected.

Precisely the objectives of the project included establishing a national backbone; connecting all ministries in a single Wide area network; establishing a government data center and connecting 28 major districts in Uganda to the backbone. Its expected outputs included having all government Ministries connected; e-government services implemented, 28 districts/towns connected to national backbone.
And in turn, the outputs were expected to lead to improved communication between government ministries; improved services delivery by government ministries; reduced cost of communications; increased economic development and subsequently a reduction in poverty.

                                               Cables being rolled out on the streets (Internet Photo)

And after the first phase, the achievements included having ministries connected to e-government network; there is video conferencing services rolled out in all Ministries; Kampala, Entebbe, Bombo, Mukono and Jinja connected to national backbone and 183 Km of optical fibre cable laid; this is a very forward strategy however in the whole plan, citizenry, the local tax payer was not catered for.
This project drew a lot of political clout, as can be shown in part of the budget speech on 12th June, 2014 where the Minister of Finance of Uganda, Maria Kiwanuka read this statement in reference to the ICT sector;

“This sector is achieving increasing importance as a support to the other sectors. It is no longer a sector on its own but it is an input to health, education, business and trade, agriculture and weather forecasting. During the year just ending, we have completed construction of two phases of the National Transmission Backbone Infrastructure which has improved internet connectivity at an affordable cost. This has reduced the cost of bandwidth to $ 300 per megabit per second per month, down from $600 prevailing on the market. Bulk internet bandwidth agreements have been signed with Government institutions with 18 ministries so far being supplied with cheaper bandwidth. I encourage the private sector to utilise the infrastructure in order to reduce their ICT costs of doing business and enhance their efficiency and profitability”.

But again, let us reverse to circumstances surrounding the roll out of NBI. In the 2012 National ICT Policy for Uganda, a lot was promised with section 3.2.1 a) vividly stating “Extension of the national backbone infrastructure to cover the entire country as well as addressing last mile challenges”. The policy went on to state much more but the interest of this blog is to discuss how local internet access has been affected by inability to scale up networks links to last mile beyond Ugandan government structures.

In 2008, NBI was managed by Ministry of ICT however by 2010, NITA-U got operational but had a lot to clear out with the then Minister of ICT Dr. Ham Muliira. Initial designs rotated around having a greater capacity of the NBI links dedicated to inter-connecting government ministries, establishing video conferencing, VoIP services, mailing facilities among others. Government to government communications is very important however, there needs to be an expeditious way of improvising capacity for local citizens whose businesses and ventures would heavily benefit from the backbone capacity, therefore the whole point of having an e-government has not allowed the effect of the NBI trickle down to the local man. Worse still, in the country side, the effect of the NBI has not been seen. Major regional offices in up country districts either do not have connectivity at all or the office holders are using 3G data modems which is a reflection of an insufficiency in the implementation of a well written policy.

On paper, the ICT policy put up measures that would help scale internet access to citizens; an implementation of this would help organisations and individuals who need reliable internet connectivity to run their ventures such as countryside hubs,   media reporters, and other users of through mass usage of online facilities. The last mile connectivity has not worked at local government level as was supposed to be.

                                                  Cables used in NBI (Photo by: Daily Monitor)

With the NBI capacity reaching the local users, the cost of 1mbps internet link would be no more than $50.00, but the inability of the cable effect to provide service to the last man  has left a service void which is  exploited by private telecom companies charging an average of $600.00 for the same link capacity. This still explains why in areas like northern Uganda, Zoom, private service provision firms have stepped in to provide service. In Kampala, recently launched Smart Telecom has intensively capitalised on data services. If the NBI had met its objectives, probably much of the connectivity services would have been provided by the government backbone than private firms which tend to provide service at a high cost.  This high  internet costs, this affects the level of content search by researchers and people interested in learning such as students, people and institutions creating content and need to share and at the same time, it has made it challenging and expensive for content creators, bloggers, publishers and other professionals in that line to expose their work using internet services.

Uganda Communications Commission responsible for licensing telecommunications service providers in Uganda is making it difficult to license other firms (service providers) trying to enter into the data provision market. This is because, the more the service providers, the lower the costs of service could most likely become. Data services in Uganda is the cash cow of the industry and seemingly the regulator (UCC) would not want it tampered with by new entrants who most likely can tilt market balance  against already established market players. Based on this backdrop, new entrants will be frustrated and service will stay limited for a longer period.

Conclusively, the limited and high cost of internet service in Uganda is majorly because the implementing bodies of the National Backbone Infrastructure (NBI) did not put much consideration into the populace. This is probably because the RCDF spearheaded by UCC is working on last mile connectivity. If we are to base on RCDF to roll out connectivity throughout Uganda, this may take a while to be felt. . Several district local government offices still do not have any connectivity; there is not much effort towards achieving final connectivity at the districts. Cost of internet is still very high, something that has frustrated much hope that Ugandans had in the optic fiber cable (NBI). However, if priorities are realigned and the objectives followed, the next few years could see Uganda having gigabytes of bandwidth and increased access and usage of internet. 

This article appeared on the Global Voices website. 

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