Remember when we used to call the Internet the “World Wide Wait”? Sigh. The truth is that it isn’t really that Uganda as a whole doesn’t have access to the Internet but really that, depending on who your service provider is, and how much you are willing to pay, and where your geographic location is, you get wildly different quality of service. If you are willing to pay several thousand dollars/month for a dedicated VSAT line you can get a pretty zippy connection. If you can pay $2k/month, you can get a 128/256 (read: about the equivalent of a DSL connection about 5 years ago in the US). Although in practice, even if you get a link advertised at 128/256, the ISP’s connection to the Internet might not be so great. For example – at the moment, I have a 128kbps link to Kampala, but I’ve only got at 10kbps link to London or NYC (For better or for worse, I am using Speedtest to test the effective bandwidth). And about 1 in 5 packets to google are getting dropped so that 10kbps link is pretty useless…
At the moment, I’ve totally given up on using my 64/64 WiMax+VSAT link via Infocom (which costs $300/month) and I’m using my Warid Telecom GPRS/EDGE modem (cost $60 + $40/month), which incidentally also claims speeds up to 128kbps (16KB/s), but in reality usually sits at about 2-5 KB/s on a good day (I am getting about 1.0KB/s now). The MTN EDGE/HSDPA service ($150 + $45 modem) is a bit of a joke and I have never seen it go above 1-2 KB/s (It’s supposed to be 384kbps, or 48KB/s). My suspicion is that MTN, as the pre-dominant service provider in Uganda is over-subscribed, and they use older equipment here in Mbarara. Rumor has it that they get better performance in Kampala. But it is totally beyond me why they claim 3G services and sell HSPDA modems but offer a service quality that is really completely unusable. In practice – I was able to get data services (with the same sim card) using my android g1 phone, but not with the modem they provided. Okay, I’m straying from my original topic – I’ll do another series later reviewing available mobile data services in Uganda, since that’s part of what I have to research here for Claim Mobile. (My findings are mysterious and intriguing, let me tell you… or just plain frustrating, take your pick.)
So why is a mobile phone researcher sitting here worrying about ISPs and various telecommunications providers, other than the fact that I can’t send emails and every time I manage to load my credit card website it times out and kicks me back to the log on page? Well, it’s actually part of my participant observation activities. Yes… I get to be my NGO’s consultant on all things IT. But it is also useful to know and understand these things – not just in theory but on the ground – what are NGOs actually facing in day-to-day experience trying to deal with ISPs, from selection of an internet service provider, to daily maintenance of an Internet connection, to their own understandings of why things are and are not working..
The technical people to whom we outsource things are in general okay. There is a dependence on Windows products. And I could wish that they would install proxy caches, especially since we are using VSAT services. I like that Infocom uses WiMax. But their connection to the Internet seems less than reliable, which is unreasonable given that they are multiplexing WiMax users. And really, when the Warid mobile internet for $40/month performs better than the $300/month Infocom link, you know that something is seriously wrong.
As I mentioned at the beginning – this isn’t an all-across Uganda problem. I can go to my Mbarara University office, and my internet connection is fine – we use Uganda Telecom as an ISP there, and the connection is a lot faster. Unfortunately for me, the sysadmin is a bit paranoid since he doesn’t quite know what he’s doing, and the firewall doesn’t let me POP3 my mail.
And I will also note that the story differs a lot when you change regions – East Africa Internet prices are very different from West Africa – in Ghana you can get fairly decent DSL broadband for $90/month, with out paying an arm and a leg for VSAT equipment, purely because West Africa has the SAT3 submarine fiber with a landing point in Ghana and a few other countries.
We’re waiting for that submarine fiber to Nairobi to be finished this summer? Hopefully with a non-monopoly business plan? But even once East Africa has submarine fiber, that doesn’t solve pricing problems for the land-locked countries in central Africa. While, there are many capital projects working on getting broadband Internet around the coast of Africa, no capital projects that I am aware of to date are investigating lowering the cost of Internet beyond the coast. More than a few invest in broadband via VSAT (e.g. o3b), but while VSAT may be expedient, it will remain expensive to maintain, and is not a new solution.
How many development projects have died after their three year term when the supporting NGO was no longer able to pay the $2000/month subscription fee for the VSAT service? Even when coupled with on-the-ground last mile solutions like WiMax or WiFi for sharing the VSAT link amongst a number of users, we find that the per-user cost of VSAT is too high. $2000/month here pays for maybe a 263/790kbps connection, which will support about 20-30 users. That’s almost $100/user/month! Let’s say we restricted applications to low-bandwidth apps and could support more users. With an optimistic 200 users, assuming no costs for maintaining a network that supports 200 users, $10/month is a lot of money to ask from a rural villager, discounting the cost of whatever device you are giving them. There’s still no real scenario in which this pricing model becomes affordable and sustainable. Shared VSAT plans are less expensive – but as I allude to in the beginning of my email – shared plans support fewer users. This 64/64 Infocom plan is virtually non-functional at the moment.
There’s something on the horizon… Warid has started offering WiMax service in Kampala, for which they are charging about $150 for equipment and $100/month for “broadband” service. In theory they will offer the same in Mbarara at the end of the month. (End of the month in Uganda usually means sometime in the next 3-6 months, as I’ve learned..) I assume that this is similar to Infocom and MTN’s service – WiMax to VSAT, unless Warid has some sort of wireless relay going up through Kenya and Ethiopia to the Middle East that we don’t know about.
Also on the horizon is Eric Brewer’s plan to build long-distance wireless broadband (not necessarily WiFi or WiMax) links down the Rift Valley, effectively bringing broadband inland from a number of possible submarine fiber drop points to a selection of possible inland locations using existing(?) wireless towers. Issues to surmount? Spectrum licensing in each country, trans-boundary traffic issues, negotiating agreements between the various ISP associations in each country, pricing models, who will administer the network, etc. Oh, and of course, setting up the network…. But TIER has experience with that…
In the meantime. I’ll post this and be thankful that at least two of my three available Internet connectivity options are functional.