Uganda's Delayed IT Backbone and the Missed Opportunities

Huawei has been building a terrestrial fibre optic cable – a contract from the Uganda Government and the Chinese Government - for the last seven years. The project is way behind schedule and controversy surrounds it.

Every year, talented Uganda-trained medical doctors leave the country to work at hospitals in places like Montreal, Gaborone, Sydney, San Francisco, Manchester etc.

Having spent millions of shillings training them, their migration is a big loss to Uganda or Africa for that matter. Study findings have showed that the value of such losses run into millions of dollars annually. But when you think about the fact that a doctor at Mulago Hospital (biggest public hospital in Uganda) is paid less than US$1000 a month, are they not justified to leave?

Talented scientists will continue to leave Africa for greener pastures but projects like Uganda’s national data transmission backbone infrastructure and e-Government infrastructure (NBI/EGI) are expected to make a difference. With high speed broadband connectivity, a Ugandan cardiologist in Sydney would be in position to help with surgery back home – using a video link and VoIP to help colleagues back at Mulago hospital execute a surgery.

The same can happen locally with a consultant surgeon at Mulago working with a surgeon at Gulu Hospital – more than 350 kilometres in the north of the country – to carry out an operation with video and VoIP link. Indeed e-health is one of the many deliverables that the 2,100 kilometre fibre optic cable promised.

The 24-core, 2.5 GB cable, with potential for upgrade to 10 GB is expected to lower the cost of internet bandwidth for Government and target user groups such as public schools, universities, hospitals and research institutions. According to the National Information Technology Authority Uganda (NITA-U), the IT sector regulator, the cable should provide high-speed internet bandwidth to support IT-enabled services such as business process outsourcing.

The NBI is expected to improve collaboration within government through unified messaging and support the digital migration process by providing auxiliary infrastructure for the transmission and delivery of digital television signals. The network is also expected facilitate business transactions nationally and internationally through the adoption of e-commerce.

To make all these possible, the Uganda government is likely to tender out management of the second phase of the project to a private operator who would run it profitably. Commercialization is anticipated to enable government purchase of international bandwidth capacity for priority targeted user groups like the hospitals, schools and establish a Government cloud for existing and future e-Government apps.

The network was also expected to help establish public key infrastructure to facilitate secure e-transactions, and support BPO or IT-enabled services including incubation and training. James Wire Lunghabo, a keen observer of the ICT sector in Uganda told me in an email exchange that the long delay and controversy swirling around the US$106 million project points to a lot of missed IT investment opportunities.

According to Wire, just like the telecoms paved the way for innovations in mobile telephony, the NBI/EGI is expected to do the same for IT once the infrastructure is up and running. Wire argues that innovation cannot happen if innovators are not facilitated and that the IT backbone is the enabling infrastructure that is needed to make things happen, just as a road will enable farmers to transport their produce from far-flung places.

Lots of IT businesses have envisioned doing things to benefit the local Ugandan but without such infrastructure to facilitate it; these ideas will remain stuck in the woods. As far as the EGI goes, Wire says it was a total sham as appropriate change management processes were never engaged.

According to Wire, while it makes a lot of sense for Government officials to hold their meetings remotely, there was also a need to help address the fear of them losing sitting allowance. And the fibre optic cable, which forms part of a wider East African terrestrial network that links into undersea cables at the coast, has continued to draw controversy with questions raised on the quality of the type of cable, its price and the works.

The latest Auditor General audit dated June 2013 punches more holes in the project. This report’s findings have been released at a time when Huawei are due to finish works on the final phase, which measures 307 kilometers. To put this controversy-riddled project in perspective, the first phase, a Metropolitan Area Network (MAN) that linked all Government departments and agencies at a cost of $30 million was affected by both technical and financial problems. The second phase, which Huawei stubbornly commenced despite orders from authorities to stop until technical issues had been resolved, was also questioned by experts on the type of cable that was laid.

The main issue about the type of cable, according to experts, is that the G655 has a capacity of transmitting 40 GB per second whereas the G652 can only transmit 2.5 GB, upgradable to 10 GB.
Experts said at the time that the capacity was insufficient for Uganda’s needs as services like e-health, e-learning, e-Government and e-Commerce, which require big capacity, may become difficult, if not impossible, to run across the country.

Another concern that was raised was the fact that the G652 cable has 24 cores yet experts recommend 96 cores as a minimum to ensure future growth in data and video usage. Apart from the type of cable, experts also raised questions about the price – comparing Rwanda’s price of $38 million for 2,300 kilometres of fibre optics to Uganda’s network of 2,100 kilometres. 

Despite all that seems to have gone wrong with the project, NITA-U, the regulators of the IT sector say an installation has actually been done for phase one and the subsequent phases to ensure reliability of the network. So one wonders what needs to happen for this multi-million dollar project to deliver and boost the IT landscape in Uganda!

According to Wire, it will take commitment from the highest political office in the land, as was the case when President Yoweri Museveni led the fight back in the early 1990s when HIV/AIDS ravaged Uganda.


Edris Kisambiraa is a business journalist who has covered the Uganda technology sector for the last five years