Africa is not just a mobile first continent where access to data services by majority of the citizens is on mobile, but Africa is a mobile only continent because over 95% of the Internet access is over mobile networks and consumer mobile phones.
Given this reality, data services is a frontier for mobile telecoms growth and will continue to make a significant part of the telecoms balance sheet. Also considering the importance of Internet access as a “human right” and knowing the considerable financial benefit it would bring service providers, we are seeing a race to market the best Internet speeds. In many markets such as Uganda and Tanzania we see a stiff price competition among the operators. Many “sexy” more megabytes promos are all over our living rooms on tv, on the billboards and everywhere you look even as some are masquerading to offer 3.75G and other talking 4G/5G.
Long Term Evolution (LTE) considered a 4G technology has started setting ground on the continent and Uganda is not an exception. This is good for Internet in Africa and these high Internet speeds are sexy but that known, more affordability and good quality of service is still critical.
Affordability of Internet in Uganda.
Speed alone is not enough to bring the massive social and economic benefit of Internet to the Africa continent on wide scale. In Uganda until recently, telecom operators have had data packages that arguably were still on the high side for the average Ugandan to consume more Internet services. This is starting to change with the playing field seeing more operators offering 3G services at much more reduced rates compared to how it was 2-5 years back. On the daily going by the 2018 quarter one data services market prices, for less than USD 1.5 (about 5000 UGX), a Ugandan is able to access 1GB of data. That same volume of data cost over USD 5 some 5 years back. As such, we can confidently say Internet services have become more affordable. Nevertheless, there is room to improve to make this 1 GB and cost per megabyte even more affordable if we compare with other countries such as Tanzania. Tanzania has lower mobile data cost as it reaps the benefits of the rollout of 3G/4G networks and intense competition from numerous operators. In Tanzania 1 GB costs TShs2000 approximately USD 0.89. The same should happen here.
Is Internet Speed the Most Important Factor?
4G, LTE very high-speed technologies are good but they are not the ultimate thing to bring more Internet to more Ugandans and Africans. With many Africans and Ugandans having phones that cannot make the best use of 4G LTE technologies, it remains that the factor of great importance to Internet access is affordability. Africans using starter smartphone which cost between USD 20 to 70 should have more affordable data packages that would propel them to consume the barging information and content that is being generated and transmitted over the Internet.
Very high speeds such like LTE are good for the current few that can afford iPhones and Samsung Galaxys but if Africa will fasten the growth of big mobile Internet market, among the issues to address, rocket fast speeds as some telecoms market them arguably comes second/third to affordability in importance. Network Operators, should nurture the masses to consume more data service by prioritizing their efforts on lowering data costs and then they can boost of rocket fast speeds with pleasure.
But how is the Internet Quality of Service?
In this day and age, data customers are searching for an enriched multimedia experience from the telecom providers. The Uganda operators are largely advertising enhanced data networks with some stating that they are offering 4G. Essentially, we would expect users of these services to have faster data services, browsing & searching & reading email will happen in very few seconds, streaming of video would be top notch fast (if you are on the right device). Despite the recent trends of the said improved networks, Quality of Service (QoS) that determines the degree of satisfaction of a user of the service is still derailing Uganda operators.
Quality of service (QoS) is the description or measurement of the overall performance of a service, such as a telephony or computer network or a cloud computing service, particularly the performance seen by the users of the network. Service quality in the Internet can be technically expressed as the combination of network-imposed delay, jitter, bandwidth and reliability.
Delay is the elapsed time for a data packet to be passed from the sender, through the network, to the receiver whereas Jitter is the variation in end-to-end transit delay. High levels of delay and jitter in applications are unacceptable in situations where the application is real-time based, such as an audio or video call. For interactive voice, video applications and gaming, high delay and jitter causes the system to appear unresponsive so customers that try voice over the Internet, WhatsApp/skype calls will feel a very bad experience and thus may not effectively use the purchased MBs which then would be expired by end of day and in all cases returned to the telecom revenue books.
Bandwidth is the maximum data transfer rate that can be sustained between two end points. Bandwidth is not limited only by the physical infrastructure of the traffic path within the transit networks, which provides an upper bound to available bandwidth, but is also limited by the number of other flows which share common components of this selected end-to-end path. Whereas in theory network bandwidth has increased, in practice and given the known customer complaints, the current bandwidth is not proportionate to the number of users in some areas, leading to over shared use of the Internet pipe in the last mile between the mobile phone and base station. This is felt by customers with greatly reduced speeds contrary to what is advertised.
Reliability and availability of service is commonly conceived of as a property of the transmission system, or switching system, in that a poorly configured or poorly performing switching system will be unreliable. In Uganda’s setting, there is more infrastructure problems that impact availability of service. They include power outages, network cable cuts and downright poor service providers that have not put in place proper mitigation approaches for known infrastructure risks. Based on UCC reports, there have been many reported incidents every other day of customers that purchase data bundles but end days without any Internet service due to the unreliability and unavailability of service or where data volumes have suspiciously been depleted from customer account.
As thus, while we see and welcome the more cheaper megabytes promos, the increased investment in Internet infrastructure and the reduced prices, more should be done to improve affordability in totality. Equally important Quality of service is something that needs all stakeholders and consumer protection organs to have a daring eye for if we are to have a sustained and mutually beneficial growth of Internet penetration and usage in Uganda and across Africa.
Before I forget, the rains are back, and the planting season is on.
The writer is the CEO of HiPipo (U) LTD.