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Mobile phones sound a hollow ring for rural Ugandans

Uganda is often projected as a model for poor countries that want to use telecommunications to speed up their economic development. But the success story sounds hollow in Uganda's villages.

"Wherever you go, you're just a call away". That's how the mobile phone advertisements run in Uganda, a country heralded as a telephone success story after it opened its doors to mobile phone companies in 1996.

Since then Uganda has moved from being a country with one of the lowest teledensities in the world – the number of telephones per 100 people – to having the third largest mobile network among Least Developed Countries. Other LDCs are told to follow in its footsteps.

But although the number of phones has skyrocketed from 48,000 in 1996 to 682,000 in 2003 – 90 per cent of them mobile phones – this still leaves 90 per cent of the population without a telephone, mostly in Uganda's countryside.

The ads sound hollow even to those few rural dwellers wealthy enough to own a phone.

"Sorry, the number you have dialed is not available. Please try again later" is a commonly-heard message for urbanites calling their rural relatives.

Jumbo Othieno is the only person to own a phone in Maligulya village in Kamuli District in eastern Uganda. It's an old model the size of a walkie-talkie which he lends out to his neighbours. When calling distant relatives, Othieno stands on an anthill – he needs the extra height to improve his network connection. Often he is cut off halfway through a conversation, and calling back means spending money he can ill afford.

Joseph India comes from Arua, a northern town known for its poverty and rebel insecurity. Currently working in Kampala, India says it is almost impossible to phone his rural home. "When my wife had a problem, I could not communicate with her because every time I called, there was no network," he says.

When the government liberalised its telecommunications sector in 1996, it believed that giving people – and particularly businesses – greater access to telephones would help develop the economy. The initial focus was on towns and cities, although rural areas form the backbone of the economy: agriculture accounts for 43 per cent of the GDP, 85 per cent of export earnings, 80 per cent of employment and provides most of the raw materials to the mainly agro-based industrial sector.

The government appears to recognise this in its rural communications development policy, which says: "Communication is a vital tool in the social and economic development of a country. Therefore availability of quality basic communication services to everyone at affordable rates is critical."

Rural telecommunication services, it adds, "play a very crucial role in local governance and administration as decentralization takes root in Uganda and improves access to market information…."

The situation on the ground hardly reflects this concern.

Currently, there are three mobile companies in Uganda: CelTel Uganda, owned by the Dutch MSI Cellular Investments; the South African company Mobile Telecommunications Network (MTN); and the part-privatised uganda telecom.

When MTN came on the scenes in 1998 there was a surge in new telephones. Its strategy was to focus on mobile phones rather than fixed ones although it had a license to provide both. Wireless networks are quick and relatively cheap to install, but users have to buy the handsets.

MTN introduced a system of prepaid cards, now dubbed "seeds" by trendy urbanites, since most Ugandans are deemed too poor to qualify for a subscription-based billing service. In just under a year, MTN emerged as the largest telephone operator in Uganda.

John Nasasira, the communications minister, admits there has been minimal investment in rural areas, even though telecom operators are required under their licenses to extend services to rural areas. "We have been cautious not to move into the area of penalties but uganda telecom and MTN should reach all the sub-counties as per their rollout obligations."

Uganda is divided into sub-counties, and of the country's 926 sub-counties, 154 have no network coverage.

UTL spokesman Aldrine Nsubuga says, "In order for rural places to get network, we have to put in place additional equipment and we cannot do that now because this work is done in phases. The priority right now is in cosmopolitan places where people do business. The cosmopolitan places generate business on the network whereas the rural community does not."

He adds that rebel activity in the north is a serious hindrance. "Many areas in dire need of our services are at the moment dangerous to penetrate because of the security situation."

Jose Ricardo Melo, a World Bank consultant, says in his paper Telecommunications and the Poor that governments have frequently underestimated rural communities' demand for telephones.

"Little attention is paid to the business demand of the poor, as it is frequently considered, quite mistakenly, that businesses and firms are owned and run only by non-poor people."

Rural telephones, he adds, help the poor find out about food availability, market prices and employment opportunities, and are essential to improving people's quality of life.

Another World Bank paper, written for the 2000 African Internet and Telecom Summit, cites a 1997 study of rural businesses in Botswana and Zimbabwe which found that "a critical determinant of success or failure was access to a telephone".

The challenge facing the Ugandan government is how to get telephones into villages.

Paul Nyangabyaki, editor of a Ugandan magazine DONOR News, says even if the network coverage is available, buying and maintaining a mobile phone is not a priority in rural Uganda where people's main concern is access to food.

The MTN starter pack costs $21.4, and there is a monthly service charge of $5. On average a local call at rural payphones costs $0.27 a minute – twice the price of calls within Kampala. These are high prices for the 82 per cent of people in Uganda who live on less than $1 a day. Besides, mobile phones have to be recharged and there is often no electricity supply in remote areas.

A possible solution, says Nyangabyaki, is to set up public mobile phones.

The Uganda Communications Commission, an independent telecoms regulator, plans to have at least one public telephone per 5,000 people by 2005 and has set up a development fund to encourage companies to invest in rural areas by offering them subsidies.

But the government lacks the negotiating clout to force telephone companies to invest in areas deemed unprofitable, and improve their services to customers. In 2001, the chairman of the Parliamentary Committee on the National Economy pointed out that MTN was repatriating $30 million a month in profits – allowed under Ugandan law.

Despite the scarcity of phones in rural Uganda, the gap in the number of phones between the world's richest and poorest countries is slowly closing. According to the International Telecommunication Union, the difference in teledensity between the two has dropped by 65 per cent to 112 since 1991.

"In terms of communication itself, mobiles have been successful although the average rural person still has no access to mobile phones," says Nyangabyaki.

Sharon Lamwaka is a Ugandan freelance journalist.

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