Applicability of the fourth generation broadband cellular network, otherwise known as 4G is dependent on a number of issues.
Mr VG Somashekar, Airtel managing director explains that whereas the telecom introduced 4G network country wide, you might not access it if you do not meet four criteria.
“Do you have a 4G phone? Secondly, do you have a 4G simcard? Thirdly, have you enabled 4G LTE data on your phone? If you don’t, it will still be 3G,” he says.
“Your simcard should be in sim slot 1. If you miss out on any one of those things, chances are you are not going to get the best experience,” he adds.
In essence, this means for a 4G enabled device and simcard, you still must check the 4G preferred network in your network settings if you are to have 4G on your phone.
The telecom at the beginning of the year announced that it now has 100 per cent 4G coverage of Uganda.
Mr Somashekar’s response is in justification of claims by some customers that the 4G network is a hoax asking for an investigation by telecom regulator, Uganda Communications Commission (UCC).
The country currently has 23m mobile subscribers, with mobile internet subscription at only 13.5m, representing a 35 per cent internet penetration.
4G internet usage, Airtel says, has seen an increase from about 50 per cent to 80 per cent between January and July.
Potential for the network is, however, curtailed by the lack of 4G enabled devices. Currently, smartphone penetration ranges around 25 per cent with 4G phones representing below 6 per cent, Mr Somashekar says.
But with a slight distinction in technology, Airtel believes that the cost of 4G enabled phones will be in the neighbourhood of 3G, which will increase acceptance of the fast speed network.
“I think worldwide, all new phones that are getting shipped are 4G phones. I think 3G phones are not something the industry is pitching because the gap between the 3G and 4G chip is so low that you can actually get the same price for 4G,” he explained.
The telecom is now enhancing the 4G network.
In what it has called wave two, Airtel has enhanced its 4G internet to increase data speeds.
The phased enhancements concluded in June include fiber expansion around different sites and using multiple antenna technology for wireless communication to increase internet speed.
Improvements also included optimising spectrum – a finite raw material used to transmit telecom services – to ensure it improves data speeds without compromising quality of voice calls.
“We have achieved 50 per cent of our sites in Kampala fiberized, meaning one in two sites has fiber and we have plans to continue to fiberise as many sites in due course,” he says.
However, with the influx of construction projects in the country, telecom infrastructure is at risk of destruction.
UCC recently conducted training on online underground communications infrastructure information exchange platform for key stakeholders such as Ministry of Works, National Planning Authority, Uganda National Roads Authority and National Water and Sewerage Corporation among others.
The platform aims at mitigating damages to existing underground infrastructure during project implementation.
According to Mr Somashekar, whereas vandalism of tower sites has dipped, fiber cuts continue to be a challenge, albeit less than prior years.
“Vandalism of sites has come down. We are working with most of the agencies to ensure that if a new road is going to be built, they tell us in advance so that the fiber is temporarily relocated without cutting or disturbing the service,” he says.
The alternative to fiber network, is microwave technology. While using micro wave technology is both easier and quicker to install, it has a cap on the transmission capacity.
Sites will be set up
Wave three is in the offing, expected to be completed before the end of this year.
Coverage in telecoms is divided into regions, districts, sub counties and parishes.
Airtel, Somashekar says, currently covers all divisions save for parishes. Plans to set up 200 network sites around different parts of the country especially parishes will ensure Airtel has 96.9 per cent of the population under network coverage.
“We are now present in all districts and sub counties. We have crossed over 5,000 parishes where Airtel network is fully available. With additional 200 sites, we are getting deeper,” he says.
Airtel has grown its network sites from 1,298 in 2016 to 1,620 in 2018. With additional 200 sites, the number is expected to soar to1,850 by the end of 2019.
The investment expected to take up $50m (Shs184.7b) comes at the back of the introduction of a national broadband policy which requires countrywide coverage of telecom network.
The policy requires telecoms to invest more than $200m (Shs738b) annually in network expansion and infrastructure upgrade.
Airtel has over the years invested over $850m (Shs3.1 trillion), averaging around $50m (Shs184b) annually for the last two years.
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