MTN Uganda was last month, awarded as the best data and voice network operator in Uganda by Rohde & Schwarz, a global network testing and monitoring firm —becoming the first major milestone for the telecommunication company this year. Mr. Ali Monzer, the MTN Uganda Chief Technical & Information Officer was excited to shed light on the award as well as the telco’s strides towards providing world-class service to its 15 million customers with an additional USD$300 million (approx. UGX1,060,412,100,000) investment in its telecom infrastructure across Uganda.
First and foremost, how was the survey that led to MTN Uganda winning the Best Data and Voice Network Operator award conducted?
It was a three months engagement that entailed driving a 9100km distance across the country to be able to measure the quality of the wireless performance across voice, data, and key services to benchmark MTN’s performance against the International European standards. The aggregate score was good and even better than in 2019. We were the best even then but we have improved. In 2020 the tests were not done due to the covid 19 lockdown.
What was the main reason for this survey?
The major reason for this study was to objectively benchmark all the Mobile Network Operators in Uganda against European Network standards, by an international audit firm. However, the most important objective for us was to identify the areas of improvement which the study aptly pointed out. Indeed, although we are the best, we identified some areas of improvement and the work commenced immediately to ensure that we improve the service quality in those areas. We are taking the results seriously and we are looking at the negative areas of our performance because that is where we need to improve.
Could you mention some of the areas that were found to require improvement?
We discovered some blind spots in Entebbe and along the highways. A lot of developments are happening especially on highways. New roads and other major infrastructure are being constructed so we need to fast-track that and make sure that we provide top-notch services in those areas. So, as you can see, it is not only about the award but it is also about checking and auditing ourselves as well from an international audit firm to tell us if really our investment is yielding the result.
According to the survey, how does the MTN network compare to the International European standard?
The LTE speed in Uganda is between 7-10MBPS at an average busy hour which is within the benchmark for some European markets. Yes, we still have some work to do as I mentioned earlier but we are not lagging behind. We cannot compare 2G because Europe is now shutting down the 2G network. We don’t have full highway coverage for 3G and 4G but we are working on that. We are working with our regulators at UCC and they are very supportive and are willing to avail the spectrum for us to operate on 5G in the near future.
About 5G, what strides is MTN taking in terms of availing it in Uganda?
We are investing in the latest technology. As you may recall, we were the first in East Africa to conduct a 5G trial showcase. You may not hear much about this but it doesn’t mean that we are quiet. A lot of investment is going into the 5G foundation in Uganda. 5G is the latest technology that will give you a millimeter-wave. For you to achieve that millimeter-wave and low latency, all the supporting technology and backend systems, as well as network and transmission, have to be ready. A lot of the investment is going towards the transmission to ensure readiness for the next evolution which is 5G.
What is the significance of this award (Best Data and Voice Network Operator) to MTN Uganda and its customers?
This award has proven that we have the best-in-class network. However, it also highlighted the areas that need to be improved. We are investing in high technology to improve people’s lives in an affordable way and this award has demonstrated to us that we are headed in the right direction. This will push us to invest further in our network to serve our customers better.
Last year MTN committed $300 million towards its ‘Telecom Infrastructure Project’ in Uganda. How is that rolling out?
Yes. The investment took off last year in 2021. We increased the number of towers by 20%. So, we have been in this business for over 20 years but in one year alone, we increased the number of towers by 20%. This means that in one year, we did what we normally do in 5 years.
We also rolled out more than 700 LTE sites in 2021 and as I earlier mentioned, we are targeting to achieve 90% geographical coverage in 2 years’ time. This 90% includes the lakes and National parks. This will ensure maximum population coverage. Although our population coverage stands at 97%, MTN’s geographical coverage is 72% and we hope to get 90% geographical coverage in the next 2 years including the National parks. We are still working on environmental concerns and very advanced technology to get this. It is not going to be an easy journey but we are committed.
We are also digitalizing our ecosystem so the $300 million dollars is in motion. We have more executions coming up in 2022 in terms of accelerating our investment to lead the delivery of a bold new digital world to our customers.
What does such an investment mean to MTN customers?
At the end of the day, customers need a good network, high-quality calls, seamless communication that has no buffering. Affordability and convenience. Digitalizing your life and giving you an experience that is meaningful for you as an individual.
What do our customers need from the moment they wake up until they go to sleep, and all they do in between? Our technology is aimed at providing them with ways they can do things better and manage their lives better. So, with this state-of-the-art technology readily available, we shall be able to move our customers towards higher technology and self-service customer care to provide them with the service and experience they deserve.
While these are great innovations, should a consumer be worried about their affordability?
It is the opposite if you ask me. Higher technologies are more efficient in terms of investment costs for us, which in turn informs affordability for the consumer. For instance, one 3G network cell can support only 11 customers at a speed of 1Mbps at a given time whereas 1 LTE cell can support 70 plus customers at a speed of 5Mbps. So, pushing our customers to higher technology is better for us because it lowers our cost of production which translates to lower prices.
Finally, what will it take for a country like Uganda to get to this level of higher technology?
Higher technology requires better devices. For instance, you cannot use a 2G legacy phone on LTE technology. We understand that the devices pose an affordability challenge; that is why we started our device financing program where we sell devices below cost just to push the user to experience higher technology.
With only 35-40% smartphone penetration out of a 16 million customer base, we have about 60-65% legacy phones that we need to address in order to migrate our customers to 3G and LTE. Smartphone adoption will not only improve the network experience but also improve people’s lives as well. It is important to push customers to higher technology but it’s a journey that requires involvement by the whole sector.