Monday 13 July 2020

High costs of Data, Devices and Services is holding Uganda back

Mobile technologies remain unaffordable and inaccessible to many Ugandans. In 2019, less than 70 percent of the population had access to mobile phones compared to an average of 84 percent of the population in other similar countries in the East Africa region.

This is partly due to the high cost of devices and services. Government infrastructure investment with support from the World Bank is addressing this issue. Nevertheless, high taxes on imported handsets, mobile money withdrawals and social media access inhibit making digital products and services affordable for all Ugandans.

Government has to undertake a cost-benefit analysis of taxation policies with regard to mobile money withdrawals and social media access. The recently adopted National Payments Bill will improve regulation and expand digital financial services in Uganda. The next step should be to improve the environment for venture capital and private equity to allow increased investment in the digital sector.


The development of a regional Single Digital Market would give Ugandan enterprises access to an additional 200 million consumers, and increase choices for consumers. Estimates show Ugandan mobile broadband subscribers would gain more than US$0.5billion through lower prices and increased network effects.

Greater internet bandwidth through international cables has also reduced the cost of mobile backhaul, and consequently the end-user cost of such services has fallen steadily. The market remains overcrowded, with several networks in contention, and there is room for further consolidation among operators. In recent years Bharti Airtel took over Warid Telecom and Smart Telecom entered the market, while Orange Uganda decided to exit the market, selling to Lebanon-based Africell Holding. Orange Uganda completed its rebranding as Africell in February 2015. Uganda Telecom fell into receivership and in late 2018 a majority stake was sold to Teleology Holdings. Two of the smaller mobile players, K2 Telecom and Vodafone Uganda, have not weathered competitive pressure. The management of K2 Telecom’s services and network has been taken over by Airtel Uganda, while Vodafone Uganda entered bankruptcy protection in February 2018.

Uganda has a pretty crowded mobile market and the following mobile network operators:

MTN Uganda
Airtel Uganda
UT Mobile (by Uganda Telecom)
Africell (formely: Orange Uganda)
Smart Telecom (3G-only)

And two players on 4G/LTE only:

Smile (on 4G only)
Tangerine (on 4G only), so far only for home use.

Lycamobile Uganda plans to start here.

In 2014 Airtel took over no.3 network Warid and Africell bought out Orange in Uganda. In 2015 Vodafone entered the market and Smart Telecom took over the licence of Sure Telecom. In 2018 Vodafone Uganda filed for bankruptcy and ceased operations in the country.

2G/GSM is on 900 and sometimes 1800 MHz, 3G up to DC-HSPA on 2100 MHz. 4G/LTE started on MTN, Africell andSmile so far in major cities and spread to the countryside, Tangerine moved from CDMA to LTE, while on UT Mobile and Smart only 3G is available.

For good coverage, better stick to MTN or Airtel that share 90% of all costumers in the Ugandan market. All mobile operators have their own money transaction system. Like in most of Africa you can use your SIM card as a payment system too.

MTN is the market leader in Uganda with more than 10 million customers, roughly half of the national user base. It has the best coverage, uses DC-HSPA+ in some regions as only provider and started 4G/LTE in Kampala on 2600 MHz with only 86 BTS stations so far. They started with TD-LTE (B36), but relaunched soon with FD-LTE (B7) on this frequency. MTN also manages a popular payment system called MTN MoMo.

Early this year, MTN launched a 5G public demonstration in Uganda becoming the first operator in East Africa to carry out a 5G trial. Mr. Wim revealed that 5G will not be about more customers using the network but rather IoT devices connected together. Emphasizing that their customers will have faster and better experience with services; from telemedicine, education, finance, among others.

Airtel Uganda, owned by India-based Bharti Airtel, is the biggest rival of MTN with 38% of customers, since it acquired the no.3 network in 2013. It gives good coverage on the newly merged network in 2G, 3G and 4G/LTE.

Up to 2019 Airtel upgraded its entire network of 1,632 base station sites to 4G/LTE technology, twelve months after achieving the same milestone with its 3G rollout. Airtel launched 4G/LTE-based services in 2017 and covers 96% of the population with its 4G networks in 2019.

Airtel also runs a popular payment system called Airtel Money.

UT Mobile is the cellular section of the now privatized former state provider Uganda Telecom. But it has a rather limited coverage on 3G in the country. So better make a network check before. 4G/LTE is expected to be launched anytime. So far it cant't be recommended for travellers for data.

Africell, formely known as Orange Uganda, is the 4th provider and a secret recommendation, if you have coverage, which is still somewhat limited. Where you have coverage, it's quite fast and reliable. 3G has DC-HSPA+ with up to 42 Mbps. In 2014 they started 4G/LTE in Kampala, Jinja, Entebbe and Gulu on the 800 MHz frequency (band 20).

Smart Telecom owned by Industrial Promotion Services (IPS), a Kenyan-based infrastructure developer, launched mobile networks in Tanzania, Uganda and Burundi. In Uganda they started a 3G network on 2100 MHz in 2014 with a quite limited coverage so far. While they offer the lowest prices right now, it's only up to 3G/HSPA.

Lastly Smile actually launched the first 4G/LTE network in Uganda in 2013 on the 800 MHz frequency. In 2016 they cover Kampala, Entebbe, Wakiso, Mukono, Mbarara, Masaka, Masindi, Fort Portal, Kabale, Gulu, Lira, Soroti, Mbale, Jinja and Tororo 4G coverage map. Be aware that this is only in cites and not very suitable for travellers. You don't have a fallback to 2G or 3G, but stay on 4G/LTE only. Where you have coverage. you will get fast speeds.

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