Saturday, February 21, 2009

Communicating in Uganda

One of the first things I noticed when we left the airport in Entebbe was the amount of advertising for the local telecom companies. Even in rural areas entire buildings become brightly coloured advertisements for the telecom companies --in bright yellow (MTN), light blue (Uganda Telecom or UTL), bright pink (Zain), and white on red (Warid). This benefits the owner of the building since their building is painted for free, and the company who gets advertisement space for the cost of paint.

Phone service is highly competitive here. What we would call landlines with a fixed cable from a phone company are non-existent outside of Kampala (I'm not sure about any of the other major centres). Nearly everyone has at least one cell phone and most small towns have at least one store, which sells cell phones, and cell phone accessories. These shops also offer battery charging services, since only those who live in and around town have power. In most cases people have pay as you go phones and phone cards are sold most shops. The top up cards range from 500 shillings ($0.30 CDN) to 10 000 shillings ($6.00CDN). Rates vary depending on your phone company, the time of day, your cell phone plan and the network you are calling. There are no long distance changes within Uganda, but you generally save money if you phone someone on the same network as your phone. In general the cost per minute is between 200 and 300 shilling per minute. Considering 10 000 shillings is a fair bit of money (it is sometimes hard to get change for the a 10 000 shilling bill in the market), phone calls are expensive compared to the cost of living price. Yet as one sales representative told us, everyone has to communicate so Ugandans generally find enough money to talk.

Necessity, of course, is the mother of invention and influences cell phone etiquette. First of all phone calls are always brief. People say what they need to say quickly to get off the phone. Even if you are the one carrying the charges for the call, people try to hang up quickly. At first this seemed rude to me, but then I realized that it was polite to
get off the phone quickly, as you save the caller money. Alternatively, if what you need to say can be said in a text message then it gets said in a text message (which only costs 50 shillings). Flashing (i.e. phoning someone and immediately hanging up expecting them to call back) is very common here as well, especially if people perceive you have more money than they do.

Then there are more creative solutions. I've seen a couple Ugandans who carry multiple SIM cards for their phone, one for each network. When you call someone on MTN you use your MTN SIM card, if you are calling someone on Zain use your Zain SIM card. This is easy to do since SIM cards very easy to get a hold of and are even sold by the hawkers in the taxi parks.

The Internet is also very popular here. Most small towns have an Internet cafe and for 1000 shillings ($60) you can get 20 minutes of access. In Kampala you can get DSL, but outside of major centres the Internet is very slow, since there are no fixed lines. Even the cafes, which are fast compared to the other options that are generally available, are slow compared to a basic DSL or Cable package in Canada and far less reliable.

Disclaimer: From this point on the technical jargon may be more than some (like Michelle) want to read, although it does describe what I have been doing as of late.

For those who want Internet at home or in a small office there are only two companies offering services, MTN and UTL. In Bushenyi both these companies only offer wireless solutions using cell phone technology. UTL uses a wireless CDMA phone and costs 100 000 shillings a month. This appears to be what most people here use including the diocesan offices. I picked up MTN's GSM wireless modem last week and it costs 90 000 shillings a month. Both claim to be able to give around 230 Kbits/s, but they generally average speeds around 5Kb/s in real life. Both services are about as fast as a dial-up modem in Canada, but they are both far less reliable. At times the latency (time it takes for a web server to respond) is unusable. This is especially the case for UTL since we arrived (it apparently was better a couple months ago). I've found my little GSM modem far more reliable, but sometimes the network is just not available. AWIST, where Michelle is, has a shared satellite link with a medical research facility. It is apparently quiet good when it is working, but has been down since we got here. This is why our blog posts have been sporadic until I got my GSM modem last week.

Most of my work in the diocesan office has been looking into business class Internet. The only one I have found (beside satellite, which is too expensive) uses WiMAX technology. From what I remember about wireless technology this it isn't as nice as the wireless links that the telecom companies use in Canada, but hopefully it will get the offices a much nicer 128 Kb/s connection at a reasonable price.


Allison said...

Ah, phone etiquette... Isn't it fascinating to make discoveries that make the previously unexplainable actions of other people... I hated the flashing thing myself, and rarely phoned people back if I didn't have anything to say...

And, about the HUGE painted cell phone (and everything else) advertisements... I was amazed when I was in Kenya and the red 'celtel' was bought by the fluorescent pink 'Zain' company... it completely changed the face of the country as all vestiges of red were replaced by this vibrant pink!

Jeff said...

We don't answer many of our flashes. Since the number belongs to the bishop they usually aren't for us anyway...

There are still some buildings painted with the red Celtel logo here, despite Zain having bought them. The pink though is VERY pink as you know.