4 June 2019

Uganda: Where Is Kampala's Free Wireless Internet?

Government first announced free wireless internet in Kampala in 2017. For many university students, internet is a luxury. So the excitement for free internet was overwhelming. #MYUG it was dubbed.

It was to be used at off peak government working hours, meaning 6pm to 6am, within Kampala and Entebbe, National Information Technology Authority, (NITA-U) told Daily Monitor then.

NITA, through international competitive bidding acquired internet at $4.7m (Shs17.7b) for 15 years with a speed capacity of up to 10 gigabits per second.

NITA-U, the official flag bearer of the project, says to date, the service is rolled out to 284 locations within Kampala, Wakiso and Entebbe with an additional 500 expected to come on board in 6 months.

"We have 284 locations of MYUG. It used to be 164 in 2018 and the plan for 2019 calendar year is to increase them to 500 locations," Mr Steven Kivenga, marketing and communications officer NITA said.

Priority

The priority areas, he says, are rural areas where the National Backbone Infrastructure (NBI) has been extended such as West Nile.

Figures from the Authority indicate that in March, traffic on the internet was up to 5.1m times. The traffic is not indicative of unique users.

During that month, the most traffic emanated from Crane Chambers, Platinum and tours, Royal Plaza, Kyambogo University and UAP in Nakawa.

This trend, Mr Kivenga said, could speak to the growth of online business taking place in those areas.

Test drive

Social media has been awash with various perceptions, some wondering whether the free wifi exists or not and others saying they have used it.

However, during my trek to different areas, I discovered in and around Lugogo by pass, the service exists. But as you leave, the service disappears.

In parts of Kololo, Mutungo, Entebbe, it is non- existent. However, it reappears along Kampala Road and Naguru albeit weak upon connection. This despite claims by NITA that the internet can go as fast as 100 Mbps on a smartphone.

Mr Micheal Niyitegeka, Internatinal Computer Driving Licence (ICDL) Africa country manager for Uganda, believes that the connection is mainly strengthened around government offices. NITA, he advised should collaborate with telecoms to ensure they strengthen their internet connections like it is done in other countries like Rwanda.

Initial challenges

NITA says that initially, the service experienced challenges such as an overwhelming usage backed on an under capacitated system which created login challenges.

"The estimations were conservative because given the saturation of internet usage within Kampala, you would not expect it but the demand was overwhelming. At some point, we had service issues," he says.

However, the Lugogo based Authority now says the system has been revamped to allow for public users to access the wi-fi all day long with office hours included.

The revamp, he says, also eases access to the service by the public.

Cost of internet

NITA has many times pointed out the dropped internet costs from $1,200 to $70 currently. However, for the public, cost of internet is still an outcry.

Private service providers NITA says react to efforts by government to reduce the cost of internet especially business to business sales.

For instance, in 2015, when the market price was $1,200 per megabit per second per month, NITA's internet cost at $300. The price went even lower in 2016 when the market price was $600, NITA was at $190. Currently, NITA internet is at $70 per Mbps per month compared to average market price which stands at $250.

The cost is expected to go lower if government accomplishes to drop its internet to $50 per Mbps per month.

Since NITA sells internet to some internet service providers, which is said to be cheaper than international sellers, the cost of buying internet is sequentially dropping. While the drop is currently felt from the B2B level, the effects are expected to transition to the public eventually.

Technology tends to get cheaper with many people using the infrastructure because the cost of maintenance and operation is divided amongst many users.

Uganda's backbone currently stretched to 3000km is expected to grow to 4200km after phase four of the NBI is complete connecting 1100 sites. This is anticipated to increase internet users making the cost of internet even lower.

Plans at loggerheads

While implementing its mandate to extend internet connectivity to the country, NITA is extending wifi to different regions.

OTT tax exempts wifi

Government at the beginning of the 2018/19 financial year, introduced Over the Top Tax levied on use of social media to which wifi is tax exempt.

Mr Kivenga said the Authority is cognisant of the country's needs to raise domestic revenue and understands that wifi is deterrent to those efforts.

He, however, noted that government plans are subject to review to determine their efficiency.

Responding to queries on whether wifi can be taxed, he merely said with technology, you have no known limits.

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