First, let us get the  abbreviations off the table. NBI is short for National Backbone Infrastructure, a network of connected internet infrastructure (cables) connecting towns plus most government Ministries, Departments and Agencies(MDAs) spread across Uganda while NITA is short for National Information Technology Agency Uganda, a government agency mandated to coordinate and regulate information technology services in Uganda.

A while ago, we reported about one of the core services of NITA to MDAs under direct orders of the top brass of the Ministry of Finance, Planning and Economic Development  be transferred to Uganda Telecom Limited (UTL). The service in question is the provision of mobile and fixed telephony services where internet falls and up until now, has been implemented through the use of the NBI, under the wraps of NITA though its management was procured to Soliton. 

It is an open secret that UTL hasn’t had the best of days when it comes to its operations but the sudden change of behavior attributed to the new management led to the above declaration. UTL has long been marred in management woes and disputes some with its shareholders, others with government agencies like URA, its contractors and fellow industry players among others.

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While all this transpired, the rest of the industry was moving forward with advances in telecommunications services investing in next generation technologies, upgrading their networks, expanding beyond telecommunications as the blue  network shed customer after customer but was only kept afloat with governments involvement to save it from dilution, a piling dept, bankruptcy and what not. We can say, it plays a strategic role for the government to keep its assets though the very savior was allegedly accused of defaulting on its obligations to the ailing company leading it to its current state, of course through its MDAs.

UTL couldn’t attract investment and in return hasn’t invested in its ailing infrastructure as much and the general feeling was either to sell it off, wound it but here we are with promises that after all it wasn’t a sinking ship. An uneasy feat to pull off we must say so kudos UTL.  All MDAs were thus ordered to procure its services to help recapitalize it  lest they lose out on their next budgets for the current financial year by the ministry responsible for their budgets.

Let us pause for a bit away from UTL troubles, divulge the NBI which might lay redundant if this decree from the Ministry of Finance to save UTL is upheld. First of all, it is already in place with Phase I,II and III completed and over 2400KM of fiber cables have been laid while other phases await their implementation and completion. The completed phases cover areas of Kampala, Entebbe, Mukono, Jinja,  Bombo, Busia, Tororo, Mbale, Malaba, Kumi, Soroti, Lira, Gulu, Elegu, Masindi, Kyenjojo, Fort Portal, Kasese, Bushenyi,  Masaka, Mutukula, Mbarara, Kabale and the Katuna Border Post while the areas of West Nile; Pakwach, Nebbi, Arua, Yumbe, Koboko and Adjumani are on the waiting list.

All the areas it has transgressed have seen over 256 MDAs and local governments connected to the NBI and just this month, the number is poised to clock 270 according to NITA.

The benefit hasn’t been to MDAs only, education and health institutions have been connected too and the general public through the MyUG initiative.

MyUG, if you must recall is an initiative of NITA to avail excess/unutilized bandwidth of these MDAs to the general public through the provision of wireless access points (read wifi hotspots) mainly in Kampala and Entebbe areas with other geos on the road map. Access is free to every Ugandan and the service is accessible starting from 06:00PM to 06:00AM on weekdays and from 03:00PM on Saturday  to 06:00AM on Monday.

According to a NITA Source privy to this information,for the time the NBI has been active, a host of achievements can be traced back to as far as 2010 where the average cost of internet bandwidth has dropped progressively from $1200 per month to $600 in 2014 to $300 in 2014 and it currently stands at $190 as of July 2017. This represents a significant cost reduction in the cost of internet in a stretch of 8 years.

The interlinked NBI also leaves room for further cost reductions from bulk internet bandwidth purchase agreements though an Indefeasible Right of Use Arrangement, provided an agreement is reached.

Aside from this reduction of government expenditure, the NBI has also increased productivity of MDAs using the robust NBI infrastructure without the worries of outages thus increasing efficiency amongst them and delivery of services to the people they owe their service. It has also led to an increased usage or adoption of government e-services through MyUG (all of which are zero-rated on MyUG), which we earlier covered  and current hits through its gates stand at 663,096.  

In retrospect, much as national solidarity and key government interests want UTL to stay afloat, it hasn’t invested so much in its infrastructure that its fiber network stretches in a handful of towns like Kampala, Mpigi, Masaka, Lwengo, Mutukula, Lyantonde, Mbarara, Ntungamo, Kabale, Katuna, Entebbe, Kampala, Kampala Metro, Mukono, Jinja, Iganga, Malaba, Tororo and its aging wireless technologies date back to circa 2007 with its early deployment of 3G which is also scanty. Contenders like MTN, Airtel, Africell and new entrants like Vodafone are way ahead in this particular area with 4th generation technologies while others are looking at FTTP/FTTH solutions.

The NBI is only rivalled by Uganda Electricity Transmission Company Limited (UETCL) fiber optic network  that stretches across the following towns; Kampala, Lugogo, Mutundwe, Entebbe, Namanve, Mukono, Jinja, Bujagali, Iganga, Tororo, Mbale, Opuyo, Lira, Katakwi, Moroto, Opuyo, Gulu, Olwiyo, Kitgum, Pakwach, Arua, Nebbi, Karuma, Kafu, Kinyara, Hoima, Kabaale, Fort Portal, Nkenda, Kahungye, Nkonge, Kabulasoke, Masaka, Mbarara, Mirama, Kabale, Mutukula, Kawanda. However, at the end of the day it will al double down to the last mile question.

We can all agree that revitalization of UTL can be gradual but the quality of service, coverage matter too. While the battlelines have been drawn between MDAs, we on the consumer side have been left out but at the end of the day we want cheaper internet that is easily accessible. NITA is outright out of this lane, having been denied a license to do so and attempts to extend its services to the general public were somewhat met with a backlash from telcos. We suppose we can all guess the reason as to why.

On the other hand, UTL hasn’t had these restrictions in place and has long provided telecommunication services to the general public but let us say the latter’s confidence in it hasn’t yielded as much as what they have vested in its rivals. Had the opposite been true, its performance would be brisk.

We hope these two government agencies reach an agreement and save the government investment in the NBI. We now leave the debate to you.