The best LTE service in Uganda: Which carrier speeds are right for you?

With LTE connectivity predicted to become a standard feature on almost every middling modem and  smartphone, vast majority of Ugandans haven’t had access to a next-generation network.

It’s the first time we are carrying out any kind of speed-tests on any network, and we shall begin with 4G LTE (Long Term Evolution). This is a new fourth generation wireless broadband technology,  which is touted for its low latency and fast data transfer speeds. We obviously had to take Uganda’s three LTE carriers (MTN, Orange and Smile) for a spin in “deep speed-test waters” using their respective  data modems.

Our survey was based in Kampala and from the results obtained Orange Uganda’s LTE service proved to be the fastest and most reliable. MTN despite launching the service first, with a few sites, their LTE appears to be equally fast with scanty coverage but also expected to spread rapidly. It should also be noted that MTN registered the best latency and was able to pump out high speeds that shocked the pants off their competition in certain places, although we found the service unreliable with constant disconnections; an issue we are sure MTN will fix this soon. Smile’s LTE is reasonably quick and easily the most pervasive, but also lacks speed in most areas, we are hopeful they will reach higher speeds and utilize their entire band once their rumored interference issues with a certain CDMA network are resolved.

Those are the top-line findings of our most recent study of real-world wireless broadband performance in Kampala.

There are many ways of testing LTE performance, yet not all are valid or tell the whole story. It’s important to recognize that the customer experience depends more upon consistent speed.   In a period of eight weeks in July and August, we measured the LTE services of the three major national LTE wireless carriers in seven areas of Kampala regardless of coverage footprint. The tests are based on the popular OKLAA’s speed-test.net site and all tests were done on MTN’s server, as it’s the only near by server we could access.

LTE projected to go mainstream

It is clear that the next evolution of 3G networks is 4G LTE, as the service was pioneered by MTN this year in Uganda. There is far less than 5 percent of Ugandan data subscribers on LTE but the number is growing steadily and analysts expect that number to grow to nearly 60 percent by 2017. More and more new modems and phones will bear the 4G-LTE label, and phones that connect only to 3G and 2G service will become increasingly rare.

In fact, 3G and 2G networks were originally designed for voice, not data. The carriers furnished them with IP technology to make them convey data, but you can retrofit only so much until returns (in speed and capacity) begin to diminish. New LTE networks are constructed from top to bottom with IP as their main language, so they are far faster, more economical, and more flexible than the clunky old 2G and 3G networks. But 4G is very expensive to build from the ground up, as investors in the big wireless carriers can attest.

We still await for Airtel to launch their LTE network, (not that we have heard any rumors) but currently they must be fully occupied with their recent acquisition of Warid, merging the two brands and the Warid URA court case among other issues. Of course this is based on the assumption that they can get the right LTE band from UCC which according to our sources is unavailable or they could at zero cost re-firm their current 1800MHz band from the Warid acquisition for LTE.

The advent of the iPhone and then cheaper Android phones—plus their insatiable hunger for bandwidth—caught the carriers by surprise. Since then, the carriers have embraced the high-margin business of moving mobile data, and have invested billions of shillings in upgrading old networks and building new ones.

How testing was done

In our study, we selected seven random areas around Kampala with obvious potential for this kind of service. We randomly opted for  Kololo, Ntinda Trading center, Wandegeya, Muyenga, Oasis Mall, Kiwatule and Central Business District (CBD) via Kampala road. MTN modem failed to connect in 3/7 places: Kololo, Ntinda Trading center, Kampala road  as there was no LTE coverage .

Excluding and including speedtests 2

Orange is still the fastest, but we are disappointed with the latency times

The results come as no surprise, Orange still maintains its mobile data dominance. During the tests we were able to maintain high speeds in all places, even though MTN could reach higher speeds in several other areas where Orange failed to hit higher speeds.

At the end of July this year, Orange Launched its LTE network and  the number of both smartphone and modem customers using these LTE devices are expected to increase day by day. It is the only carrier in Uganda that can support LTE capable smartphones that will seamlessly switch back to 3G and 2G in case you are out of LTE coverage. Based on the demos during the launch of their 4G-LTE network, Orange also assured its customers to expect  higher upload and download speeds from its LTE network compared to it’s 3G network.

Excluding the three areas where MTN had no coverage (Scenario 2 in results), Orange’s network averaged with download speeds of 33.02 mbps, and 12.35 mbps for uploads in 4 out of the 7 places.

 

The average download speeds from all carriers in two of those places, Bugolobi and Kiwatule, surpassed 28 mbpsBugolobi all townsalone also managed to impress us with over 29 mbps from all on average, marking the only area that could easily hit the 30-plus-mbps showings of any service in our study.

Overall Orange’s LTE clocked average download speeds of greater than 26 mbps in the seven areas we tested. Orange’s average upload speed dipped below 10 mbps in only two places: Muyenga and Ntinda. The fastest area for uploads was Kiwatule, with an impressive average speed of  15.39 mbps. At that rate, you can upload a 7.5MB video in 3 seconds. The only issues we see with their network is the unimpressive latency times as MTN beat them shameless in all areas.

 

MTN LTE keeps pace with impressive latency times

In our study, MTN posted the fastest LTE speeds in two of the seven places: Kiwatule and Bugolobi, and the biggest demerit it was facing was the scanty coverage. The most disappointing part of it was that there was no coverage in the city ce
nter. The speeds were robust, although we experienced a lot of interruptions as the service was not stable, getting on and off at will without prior warning. We believe the carrier will sort out these issues plus also expand its coverage to match Smile and Orange’s LTE footprint. MTN failed to connect in three out of the seven places chosen, plus indoor signal service was a hit and miss.

MTN’s LTE coverage may not be the widest everywhere, but from our findings, the network is fast enough for the tasks that the users want to do. It’s important to recognize that reliability, accessibility, and coverage are most meaningful to customer. Obviously, however, speed remains important, especially if you are an MTN customer who wishes to do things like stream video or video chat.

The telecom giant’s LTE registered a healthy 31.63 mbps average download speed across 4/7 testing places where we found their coverage. The

all towns_with water mark

service tested gave upload speeds that were not surprising; consid

ering the theoretical upload speeds of TDD technology, they managed to clock in at 7.06 mbps on average which is thrice the average upload speeds of Smile and half of Orange. We recorded a super-low average network latency of 16 seconds, which could be attributed by two factors; one a network with very few devices connected to it or secondly the fact that the MTN server is the default server you connect to in the speed-test web app and we think the latter is the more likely scenario.

We recorded the fastest MTN LTE speeds in Kiwatule and Bugolobi, where we saw a combined average downloads of roughly 37.58 mbps and uploads at a solid 8.31 mbps. MTN’s scores in those areas were about thrice as fast as Smile’s 4G speeds in those places, but also little better than Orange specially with the downloads.

We saw the slowest performance of MTN’s LTE network in Muyenga, (20.77-mbps downloads and 2.06-mbps uploads). This is way faster than Orange’s lowest performed area Ntinda, (8.74 mpbs downloads and 0.76mpbs uploads). As a per now we all know that MTN’s LTE service is strictly on the MTN platform and devices from other carriers are not supported, the situation gets worse in that users cannot switch over to their high speed 3G HSPA+ network and we only hope MTN will sort this out soon.

 

Smile LTE has reach but not speed

The story of Smile communications since it’s inception is a long one, after hoping from WiMAX to CDMA (or whatever their wireless strategy was), Smile seems to have found the sweet spot and a clear business case with LTE and indeed it has gotten its game on with its network since it launched. The carrier had been hopping around trying different  strategies of how to penetrate Uganda’s competitive telecommunications sector. In June this year Smile launched their 4G network with around 21 sites around Kampala. They would have been the first to launch LTE in Uganda but MTN beat them to the title. Just like Orange, Smile also operates on the same 800MHz band that is touted for its great indoor signal coverage.

Where the LTE network is not yet available, Smile 4G-device users cannot connect to anything else. Rumor-mill indicates that they will rollout about 100 more sites soon, so watch out for that.

Smile’s LTE service produced an average 4G

download speed of about 8.88 mbps in our 4 test places and 6.28 mbps in all 7 test places. That score puts Smile on the shame list at the bottom of the speed test, putting them firmly in third place in our study.

The Upload speeds were also nothing to write home about as the current 3G speeds can attain them, with average upload speeds coming in at 2.59 mbps, the lowest average for uploads in our three-carrier race. Smile’s service also produced the highest average network latency time in our study, at  57 milliseconds (still very responsive enough to support real-time services like VoIP).

Just like MTN, Smile’s fastest place was Bugolobi, where we measured downloads in the 16.7mbps region and uploads of 5.31 mbps. In the remainder of our testing cities, however, Smile download speeds failed to break into double digits.

 

Not all are created equal

summary winner loser

As our results show, you can find some real differences in the quality of 4G-LTE mobile broadband. The results clearly demonstrate that not all LTE, is created equal, with average download speeds varying by a factor of more than three times among competitors.

We don’t expect the differences between services to go away within a blink of an eye as its evident that it’s LTE standards and available spectrum driving even greater performance variances, wireless users can expect to see the performance gap continue to widen further—perhaps to as much as a factor of ten times—in the years to come.

 

What can your Pocket handle?

When it comes to how much these LTE services will cost you, the carriers have not diverted away from their existing 2G/3Gpricing LTE 1 pricing plans excluding Smile since it has no 2G/3G network to talk of. This means your data bundle will expire faster than usual since the speeds on LTE are blazing fast.  If you were to take your unlocked modem or smartphone to Orange today, they could give you a pay-monthly SIM with plans ranging from UGX 25,000 for 600MB of data to UGX 150,000 for 12GB.

MTN has the cheapest plan at UGX 20,000 for 500MB, but for UGX 5,000 extra Orange will throw in more 100MB for you. Both Smile and Orange have similar Price plans but Orange gives more value for your money.

Based on all facts presented in this study Orange gives you value for your money in both speed and price, MTN is very close second and Smile in third place.  For the vast majority of Uganda’s data users in Kampala, the solution to their LTE dilemma rests on the answers to two questions: How much data do you need? And how urgently do you need LTE speeds?

 

Are you already using LTE services from any of these carriers?  Feel free to share your experience.

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