High data costs are one of the main factors hindering digital participation rates in Uganda. But the country’s stated commitment to infrastructure development could bring down prices, which is cause for optimism.
The access cluster is classified in the orange section of the #speakup baromter. To find out more about the #speakup barometer color codes, follow this link.
Internet penetration in Uganda is still comparatively low. Different sources report different penetration rates for Uganda in 2016: ranging from 22 percent (ITU), 31 percent (Internet World Stats), and 45 percent (Ugandan National IT Authority).
Our interviewees reported that Uganda lags behind its neighbors Kenya and Tanzania. According to Sarah Kiden, IT expert and current Ford-Mozilla Open Web Fellow, Internet penetration rates in urban areas in Uganda are good, but online use in rural regions remains low. Even though the rise of the mobile Internet has helped bring more rural people online, infrastructure and ICTs remain mostly concentrated in urban areas, where only 18 percent of Ugandans live. The result is a significant urban-rural divide. However, a study carried out by the National Information Technology Authority Uganda (NITA-U) showed that mobile phone penetration rose from 52 percent in 2014 to 71 percent in 2017, with rural growth even outpacing that in urban areas. Neema Iyer of Pollicy, an organization focused on using technology and data to improve public-service delivery in Uganda, argues that one of the main reasons people do not use the Internet is cost, especially regarding data.
In 2016, 1GB of mobile prepaid data cost 15 percent of the average national income. This is an improvement over the previous year, when the same data package would have eaten up 27 percent of an average Ugandan income. But it is still high compared to neighboring Kenya and Tanzania, where the comparable costs are 4 percent and 6 percent respectively. This means that data costs in Uganda are out of reach for the majority of citizens. Mobile phones are not the problem; they are relatively cheap. The ITEL feature phone from China’s Tecno Mobile costs around 10 USD. A battery charge can last up to seven days and the phone allows users to browse websites and use services such as Facebook Zero.
The ITEL feature phone from China’s Tecno Mobile - one of the cheap mobile phones flooding the Ugandan market.
In the capital Kampala, there is a growing middle and upper class which can afford expensive internet bundles, says DW Akademie country representative for Uganda Miriam Ohlsen. Even though costs have gone down over the years, affordability still remains an issue, especially in rural areas, adds Kiden. In some areas, investment is not very profitable for Internet service providers given the lack of population density and the low usage rates. This leads to a weak network infrastructure and a lack of competition among providers which would drive down prices
While availability is better in urban regions, so is the overall Internet experience. According to Kiden, many providers offer Internet packages that enable users to access cloud-based services, transfer files, watch videos, etc. There have been some initiatives to bring higher-quality services to more people. In 2006, several educational institutions teamed up to establish the Research and Education Network Uganda (RENU), which allows them to buy Internet services in bulk from an international supplier instead of a local provider. Connected campuses can offer Internet speeds up to 1GB/second. However, these services reach only a small percentage of the population, leaving the majority access only to the lower-quality, local services.
Ugandans can also get online at Internet cafés, community centers or public Wi-Fi spots. However, Ohlsen says that some community centers offering Internet access sometimes have a bad reputation within rural communities. According to people working at the centers, the local communities feel like users, especially boys, are wasting their time in the centers. “Even if the Internet is available, there is still a question of whether it is actually used and if there is an awareness of what it can be useful for,” Ohlsen said.
What are the most important issues?
While it is easy and affordable for Ugandans to get access to a mobile phone, data costs remain high. This is one of the biggest challenges to getting more people online. Abaas Mpindi, founder of the journalism training center Media Challenge Initiative, says there is a strong link between Internet use and income. If he had one dollar either to buy food or Internet access, “I would definitely go for food,” he said.
Digital literacy is a strong indicator of how motivated people are to use the internet or access information. “People don’t know how to search or find information and digital platforms are not a ‘must’ for them,” Mpindi added. Higher digital literacy rates would create higher demand for better and more affordable Internet access.
What happens next?
Uganda’s “Vision 2040”, a strategy outlining the country’s socio-economic development, highlights the importance of the digital economy and states that “Uganda shall continuously build robust, ultra-high speed, pervasive, intelligent, and trusted high-speed ICT infrastructure all over the country in line with the changing technologies.” The strategy also emphasizes that infrastructure developments will be accompanied by a focus on digital literacy and capacity building.
Lately, Uganda has seen new infrastructure investments that could help narrow the digital divide. For example, Facebook has announced a partnership with Airtel Uganda and Bandwidth & Cloud Services Group, a wholesale telecoms infrastructure provider serving nations in East Africa, to build approximately 770 km of fiber backhaul connectivity in northwest Uganda that would cover three million people.
How can access be improved?
Making ICT infrastructure development a government priority is crucial for a country’s development. With “Vision 2040”, Uganda has already included infrastructure development as a priority. Kiden says Uganda is catching up and that the investments in infrastructure described above are a first step toward achieving this vision. According to her, the next stage should be capacity building with government officials.
The government also sees the growing importance of a multi-stakeholder dialogue when it comes to Internet governance. Kiden says that cooperation between the government, civil society, and the private sector has improved in recent years. For example, the National IT Authority - Uganda (NITA-U), under the guidance of the Ministry of ICT and National Guidance (MoICT), promotes and monitors information technology developments in Uganda. Another example is the Uganda Internet Governance Forum, which MoICT has been co-hosting with the Internet Society – Uganda Chapter for the past few years. As a result of this cooperation, the issue of online child safety has been identified as especially important and a toolkit with learning resources has been developed.
The #speakup barometer is a DW Akademie project that examines the connection between digital participation, freedom of expression and access to information. Learn more at www.dw.com/barometer