Today, a mobile phone call could be a matter of life and death. The ability to make just one mobile phone call could save your life or land you a job or business deal that could change your life forever. The reverse is also true.
Now, it is one thing to fail to make that life-changing phone call because you don't have a mobile phone or airtime or because the battery is flat. It is quite another when the phone call fails to go through because of your telecom operator's poor quality of services.
The Uganda Communications Commission (UCC), the industry regulator, last month released a trend analysis of the Quality of Services (QoS) review results for the period of July to October 2012, which showed that the quality of telecom services in Uganda was still wanting.
The monitoring service was carried out on the main operators - Warid, MTN, Airtel, UTL and Orange - for three of service parameters - dropped call rates, blocked call rates and successful call rates. The report showed that no network complied with UCC's limits for blocked calls in the capital city Kampala, and the major towns of Mbarara, Mukono, Jinja and Kasese.
UCC said this analysis is aimed at guiding the consumers into making informed choices about the telecom network performances through publication of their comparative assessment. Subscribers complain of failure to load airtime and cases where the call is not picked up by the other person but the airtime is deducted.
VG Somasekhar, Airtel's managing director, said the report was important as quality of service is one of their key commitments wherever they operate for mobile, internet and corporate services. He said the report would help them in continuous assessment of services because they are challenged to improve and excel in service provision.
Shailendra Naidu, Warid's chief commercial officer, said, "Compared to the last track we have improved significantly. We continue to invest in network resources and quality improvement is an ongoing process at Warid Telecom."
Apparently, all operators did fall short of the standards and failed to meet the vast majority of targets set by the regulator. The operators say this was caused by the methodology used by UCC to measure the targets, which they are disputing. Discussions with the regulator on the methodology are ongoing, which means telecom subscribers will have to wait a little longer for better services because the process is yet to be concluded.
UCC uses the standard sampling method to pick certain towns that are representative of the country. But the operators don't think UCC is doing the tests right.
According to the report, UCC used the Drive testing (Rohde and Swarz) coverage measurement equipment to monitor the networks from 9am to 2pm and from 4pm to 9pm each working day of the week.
Performance was reviewed for mobile originated intra-network test calls auto generated by the monitoring unit. Each network was reviewed four times (twice in morning and twice in the evening) at each town while in Kampala each network was reviewed eight times (four in the mornings and four in the evenings) along similar evening and morning routes.
"Our technical team has been engaging with UCC to improve the measurement procedure of network quality, which will need to be restructured in order to improve the reading mechanism of the network quality for Large Network Operators," said Mazen Mroue, the MTN CEO.
Somasekhar, his counterpart at Airtel, said, "We have been in discussions with the regulator on the methodology used to measure the targets. Unfortunately that process was never concluded."
Compared to 2011 results, the average results for each network indicated a decrease in dropped call rates and significant increase in blocked call rates. On average, all networks showed improved performance rates in Kampala with the exception of Orange, which showed a slight decline of blocked call rates.
Orange admitted to that finding saying traffic had increased in the northern part of the country, which may have generated a slight increase in dropped calls. They however said it was not a decline in performance in light of the controversial methodology used by UCC.
The operators say calls do not get completed in some areas for various reasons, which include poor infrastructure, grid unavailability, fibre cuts by road contractors, natural disasters such as floods and fire, spectrum interference and cross border interference (overlapping network along the borders of Kenya, Tanzania, DR Congo and Rwanda).
MTN's outages report indicates that the network experienced the outages due to fiber cuts, by unknown individuals and fiber cuts due to road works.
In some countries like Ghana, serious steps have been taken to improve service delivery in the telecommunication industry. For example, the National Communications Authority (NCA), Ghana's telecoms regulator, has ordered MTN Ghana, formerly ScanCom Ltd, to suspend selling new SIM cards, amid a spat involving allegations of poor quality of service - as a result of the overloaded network - according to ITWeb Africa.
With more than 11 million subscribers already on the network, the regulator argued that the operator must first build more capacity before it adds new customers. In Uganda, MTN has for the last 15 years been the most popular network, which has seen it become the dominant player in the market. But complaints about quality of services have been growing proportionally to the number of subscribers on the network.
Mazen, the CEO, said they are investing more in network infrastructure to improve service delivery. "In 2012 alone, our CAPEX investments exceeded $80 million by December 2012. This investment has been mainly in expanding our network technology as well as rollout of fibre infrastructure," he said. "In 2013, we are investing another $70 million to support the subscriber growth, create additional network redundancy and capacity."
He said however that challenges remain due to vandalism of their equipment, fuel and battery thefts at sites as well as direct fibre cable cuts. Working with UCC and all government agencies, the telecom operator hopes to register positive progress in the coming months.
Indeed, telecom operators are keen to improve their services because the UCC has gazetted new regulations - the Uganda Communications (Telecommunications) Quality of Service 2012 -- which introduce fines calculated on the basis of the telecom's gross annual revenue for the preceding year and payable for each of the quality of the service targets. UCC said they had warned telecoms over their poor quality of services but they had "been ignored." UCC said if this persists, then revocation of licenses could be the ultimate decision.
However, some operators said they were "still studying" the new regulations. However, observers say it is unlikely that the new regulations would be implemented anytime soon unless there is consensus on the parameters and methodology for measuring the targets. The operators say setting up modalities for community policing to protect their telecommunications infrastructure and putting in place a specific law to protect telecommunications installations from vandalism should have been the priority.
Warid's Naidu said they had strengthened security measures but there is need for government support to reduce the power outages. The major telecom operators particularly MTN and Warid last year sub-contracted the management of tower sites to international companies, which observers say could improve service delivery in the coming months. In the meantime, UCC says it will continue to publish the quality of service reports to help consumers know which operator would best serve their interests.
Given that knowledge is power, some analysts say this could help consumers to make informed decisions about which operator to use. Michael Niyitegeka, the head of Corporate Relations at the College of Computing and Information Sciences at Makerere University, says market share would shift towards the network with a more reliable service. Even if the companies pay UCC a deaf ear, he says customers can sieve the results and will shift to the network that offers variety, reliability, creativity and better solutions.
Some big operators would think that many of their customers have had their telephone numbers for many years and would be reluctant to change allegiance, but Niyitegeka argues that the opportunity cost of switching to another network is not as high as it used to be due to the rising competition in the industry. He says because customers do not have any contractual agreements with telecoms, UCC's "naming and shaming" strategy would expose those that are bleeding in terms of poor quality of services. Those who consistently perform poorly would lose their loyal customers, according to Niyitegeka.
"Every minute is business, so every time you want to make a call and you can't because the network is congested, you lose," he said. Indeed, as they await strong action by UCC, millions of subscribers will only continue to count their losses because of dropped calls, blocked calls and unsuccessful calls leave alone the dozens of annoying unsolicited SMS messages that flood their phones every day.