The mobile data struggle in Uganda

The advent of internet services in Uganda has been on a trending increase year on year, which was boosted further with the landing of fiber Optic cable from the sea through Kenya to Uganda. This rendered the use satellite connectivity for backbone internet connection obsolete or for use just as a backup in favor of the high data speeds provided by the Optic fiber. Mobile networks have seized this opportunity to upgrade their networks to try to match the speeds offered by the Optical cable, but none has come close to exhausting it in the near future.

The biggest argument among most of my friends who consume internet are stuck between using higher data speeds which consume one’s internet bundle within no minutes or sticking to slower speeds so that their data lasts longer. Naturally, one would stick to a more cost effective optional and sacrifice speed for cost. This wouldn’t be the case for big companies, enterprises or small business depending on the application, a company would choose to have a more dedicated uninterrupted internet with speeds that are constant throughout the day. And these needs will dictate the type of technology the company will deploy.

“This left the grandfather of the ushering in the 3G technology, UTL, behind the data race”

In the Uganda, telecom veteran  Uganda Telecom deployed the first ever 3G network that got stuck in a trial loop until 2009 when Orange Uganda deployed, launched and popularized high speed 3G data services. While other mobile carriers were still fighting the voice war, no-one predicted that the war was no longer a swaying in that direction and data would be the future until Orange came on the scene. Today we can see all sorts of data speed adverts from different carriers 21.6Mbps and 42 Mbps as advertised by MTN and Orange, and 3.75G by Airtel and Warid (same difference now). This left the grandfather of the ushering in the 3G technology, UTL behind the data race. Behind closed doors as a measure to ensure Ugandans get the real taste of the speeds being advertised by the mobile carriers, the telecom regulator UCC was proposing quality measures to ensure that a user is able to achieve at least 80% of the advertised speed. This was practically impossible because the speeds advertised are shared and not dedicated. All telecom carriers unanimously rejected this proposal.

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The avalanche of these technologies has intern brought about a huge flood of Smartphones into Uganda. With the advent of social networking services in 2007 both Twitter and Facebook made a stronger case for the data evolution to spark off. This means mobile carriers have to think of ways to entice their subscribers with ridiculous high data speeds.  And if you think for a second that the mpbs race is done at 42 Mbps, you have to think again. MTN recently announced that their plans to launch a commercial 4th generation TDD LTE, (Time Division Duplex Long Term Evolution) network based on the 2.6GHz frequency spectrum. Technically this is expected to give a whole 100Mbps DL throughput speeds, at the expense of poor indoor signal penetration, a whole lot of synchronization issues in the network and the few consumer LTE TDD devices on the market. Smile telecom and Orange Uganda have also been in preparation to launch their LTE services based on an FDD LTE (Frequency Division Duplex, Long Term Evolution) on the 800MHz frequency spectrum. The technical consequences of this choice of LTE deployments include good indoor penetration, enjoy the wide range of available consumer LTE devices, all at the expense of attaining a much slower speeds of up to 60Mbps compared to their MTN counterparts. But that is a story for a different day. Rumors further suggest all the three mentioned mobile carriers are having LTE trials on going with the Equipment vendors and so far MTN has only reached about 60Mbps throughput out of the 100Mbps the technology is supposed to support.

“Cost Vs speeds: pocket OPEX”

But does this entire speed race matter? Will the normal business man downtown in Kikuubo who needs internet to send email need a 42Mbps connection? I think it comes down to the target market for these technologies for example, an average IT or tech enthusiast campus student would love the 42Mbps connection but will not afford it unlike the working class chaps who are able to afford it but currently can’t utilize it to its full potential. It all comes down to cost versus desired internet speeds and the available pocket OPEX.

East Africa Internet cables
East Africa’s Internet Fiber cables at the coast: Image Credit (

As shown above, we have many cable companies bringing fiber connectivity all corners of Africa, and in Uganda we so far have the likes of EASSY, TEAMS, SEACOM (at Malaba, Busia, Katuna, and Mutukula border towns). It’s evident that the potential for data growth in Uganda is there but we hope this will intern drive down the cost. The government is also encouraging the network carriers to share this unlimited fiber resource inland and we have also had the like of Google coming to invest into a fiber network in Kampala. Will all these at play and at full operation, it will technically put all service providers on the same platform and pedestal. And unlike voice, data usage that has no interconnection charges between carriers, this means that the prices for data still have the potential to deep low to benefit the common Uganda internet user. All in all, the struggle for the fastest ISP in Uganda is still ongoing and we are not about to announce a winner. Whether this will come with good quality and a reliable service we are yet to determine.


Do you prefer a high speed to at the expense of high charge or low speed to save cost? Feel free to leave a comment in the post.