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We can be a more productive workforce with faster and more affordable internet

I recently found myself in a position that I’ve not been in many times before. When I randomly checked the data balance on my MTN Mi-Fi router, I found out I had slightly over 1GB, which was due to expire the next day. That took me by surprise! I usually run down the bundles so fast that I never get to have data expiring on me. Even when I’ve used the “Unlimited” Vodafone and Smile packages, I’ve always hit the FUP cap quite easily.

I know what you’re thinking. How many ISPs do I use? MTN, Vodafone, Smile in one paragraph! That’s the hustle that one goes through in Uganda to find a package that is affordable, fast and has coverage in the places that you may find yourself in as you get about your business. The “Unlimited” offerings give you a good cost per GB, but because they are speed-capped, they cap your productivity as well. So that stops being funny real quick! You end up running down the bundle downloading videos and stuff, and not actually working.

Of course some people will be quick to argue that you can’t have both good quality and affordable in the same product, which is true in many cases. However when it comes to internet, I believe that we actually NEED high speed and affordable internet in Uganda, and Africa.

There has been a lot of hype about the next billion of internet users coming from Africa, and indeed with the lowest internet penetration at 28%, the highest population growth at 2.6% the opportunities are immense as all these currently offline people get online. But how is that going to happen when internet remains a luxury that many Africans can’t even afford to use regularly? And those who are able to get online often can only do the bare minimum that their data bundle will allow.

A quick look at statistics shows that the cost of internet is too high, with Africa’s regional average at $91, even higher than the average income of a Ugandan ($58).

Source: ITU Via MG Africa

I was fortunate to get online quite early in my life. I think some people would call me a “Dot Com Generation” child! I know some people who would never accept to be called such a thing, but I am better off because of my early encounters with the internet, so I’ll let it slide if you call me “Dot Com Generation”.

I used dial-up internet in my father’s office and then later in the computer lab at Ntare School. I’ve seen how we’ve progressed to today when we have mobile 4G internet. When your connection drops to 3G, you throw a tantrum! We’re quick to forget where we were not so long ago.

The internet has been my life, nearly everything I’ve done has been online, or facilitated by the internet. Even when I’m in a Church committee meeting, I’m thinking about how my Church can use the internet. When I’m in a Parents meeting at school, I think of how the school can help the internet. I’ve seen 1st hand the power of internet. So it’s personal when I talk about the cost of internet.

Simon Peter Otandeka, an IT consultant and developer behind HRMagic, an online Human Resource and Payroll Management System also works, earns and lives online.

“As a software developer I spend most of my time building systems that will be accessed by people across the globe via the Internet. I have been able to develop Software as a Service (SaaS) systems that my clients, many of whom I have never met, use and get my support in real time,” Mr Otandeka said.

These benefits have been passed on to non-technical people as well, so you can’t be quick to write the internet off just because you’re not a “techie” or “geek”.

Mr Otandeka’s Human Resource Management System code named “HRMagic” enables SMEs to automate their human resource and payroll functions and have access to them wherever they are.

Another benefit of the internet based system is that it saves companies money during their recruitment processes. Previously, jobs would be advertised in the newspapers, then applicants would trek to the office of the recruiting company and drop an envelope with their application letter and supporting documents, and once applications close, you shudder when you think about the amount of work that HR staff would have to do sorting through those applications! But today, all that process can be handled by a system, online. Applicants apply from wherever they are, no need to wear out their shoes delivering application letters. So the applicants are also saving time and money because of the internet.

Elizabeth Ahabwe, the Programs Manager at Women In Technology Uganda (WITU) has also benefited from using the internet in her work.

“Cheaper internet goes a long way towards cutting down administrative costs thus increasing disposable income and faster internet would help us get a lot more work done in a short amount of time,” Ms Ahabwe said.

“The internet has definitely made the way I work more convenient, from being able to access work files from anywhere on any machine, to being able to work together with colleagues at the same time even when not in same physical location. With the internet comes easy and more productive work days”, she went on to say.

At current costs, internet is usually the highest cost in the monthly budgets of many startups in Kampala. Imagine the relief that internet at a quarter of current costs would bring to the many young entrepreneurs trying to build things for the internet.

We are competing at a global scale with developers who access proper unlimited internet at a cost 10 times lower than ours, surely how can we price them competitively? How will Ugandans opt to use a Ugandan developed software when they can use an Indian alternative that is 5 times cheaper?

Mr Otandeka also agrees that faster and more affordable internet will reduce the cost of production for those whose work primarily depends on the internet, and also increase opportunities for them.

“The more people we have online locally, the bigger the pool of people who consume our services within our geographical location. This means more revenue for internet entrepreneurs, which will bring on more local players, and better service delivery through competition, said Mr Otandeka.

Again I must say I’ve been fortunate to either afford to be online, or to be in places where there is free or subsidized internet. I’m aware that many Ugandans haven’t had the opportunities that I have, and yet would benefit immensely from being online. They would be more productive and have access to information and resources that will enrich them at a personal level, and we’d collectively have a more empowered population.

For those who are already online, struggling to finish their work before the bundle runs out isn’t the way we should be living. Neither should we be online only during working hours because of the office wi-fi. One should be able to do research, download resources, and connect to other people without worrying about the high cost or the speed of internet. Surely, in 2016, we shouldn’t still have our Skype calls interrupted by “Hello… Can you hear me? Hello? … OK now I can hear you… Hello?”

As the struggle for lower internet costs goes on, you should take advantage of the current offers from ISPs. For example Smile Communications recently launched another “Unlimited” package which currently has the lowest cost per GB on the market, but at a monthly cost of UGX 330,000 (approx. $100), it is way out of reach for many. Oh, and the speed is capped!

MTN’s “Juzza” promo which gives you 100% bonus for every data bundle you buy is more available to an ordinary or average Ugandan internet user. In case you hadn’t figured it out, that, my friend, is how I ended up with more data than month.

But like Oliver Twist, I stand with my internet enabled device with the data bundle reloaded, saying to the Telcos, ISPs, the regulators, the government, we want some more internet!

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