I came across an interesting announcement the other day. Frank Tumwebaze, who is the Cabinet Minister in charge of two ministries rolled up into one — Information and National Guidance, and ICT (Information and Communications Technology), announced rather clandestinely that the Government of Uganda will provide free Wi-Fi in Kampala starting October this year.
This is a bold move. After waiting for the excitement of Minister Tumwebaze's appointment to wane and the realpolitik to kick in, I believe there is no better time than this to have an honest conversation on what needs to be done to develop ICTs in Uganda.
So far, since his appointment on 6th June, the Honourable Minister has immersed himself in the industry, getting to know who's who. He has chaired key industry round table discussions both online and offline.
On face value, the free Wi-Fi announcement sounds like a game-changing proposition, and if successfully implemented in October 2016 as promised, Kampala will finally catch up with many cities all over the world in providing unencumbered Wi-Fi access.
But as always, the devil is in the details. First, there are no details on this plan from the National IT Authority (NITA), at least, not yet. Nonetheless, I remain optimistic.
The announcement will have ramifications for telcos, as the free Wi-Fi will actually reduce the need for data, which is the main source of revenue now that voice revenue is in decline. The proliferation of smartphones, and the growing popularity of social media has changed how Ugandans use their phones.
By extension, the Uganda Revenue Authority will also be affected, since telcos are some of the biggest taxpayers in Uganda. That would explain why there is a proposal to tax revenues on mobile data separately from voice so as to stay ahead of the shift in usage patterns.
Before Ugandans get excited, however, we need to remember that ours is a country of PR. This could all turn out to be an elaborate setup, complete with smoke and mirrors.
The bandwidth for the promised free Wi-Fi will reportedly be sourced from the national backbone during off-peak hours (6pm to 6am). This is the same low-capacity backbone that has continuously been shunned by telcos and other ISPs because it is below industry standards. It is simply unable to meet the demand for fast and reliable speeds.
The backbone was to be linked to the greater East African network and stretch for 15,000 km within Uganda, as well as link the rest of East Africa, but it has been marred by severe challenges in implementation, allegedly due to shoddy workmanship.
Frankly speaking, I still wonder where one would enjoy this internet from. All the public parks in Kampala have either been taken over by the military in the name of national security, or by vulture investors for 'development', and the time limit of between 6pm to 6am, basically from dusk to dawn, is when Kampala's seedier residents come out to play, and a dark cloud of crime hovers over the city.
One could also question whether a government that has previously indicated its disdain for the online space and social media would really be pushing for free internet. This is the same government that orchestrated two shutdowns in the space of four months, and in addition it has apparently christened the internet as a haven of falsehoods and flagrant propaganda.
While the blockades may have been a little hamfisted, this new move appears to be a deliberate change in strategy. Perhaps we'll see a more aggressive push online, with an aggressively pro-government narrative set up to counter the alleged falsehoods. What's more, we could see an increase in surveillance on social media and the internet at large, with citizens’ data harvested by the agencies running this free internet, so I suspect my paranoia is shared with others.
As Edward Snowden and Julian Assange have taught us so with their jaw-dropping revelations, it's not that hard to get into your phone and figure out what you're doing online...
However, some may argue that the government is creating a conducive environment for tech entrepreneurship and knowledge-sharing.
That's not the government's job, however. I can’t emphasize this enough. There are only two things that the government should be involved in — policy and infrastructure.
One thing that's blocking Uganda's techies from prospering online is the draconian policies in place right now, created out of greed and sheer ignorance. Who is in charge of advancing the tech cause? Certainly not technocrats and intellectuals. Instead, we have politicians who can't tell an iPad from an eye-pad running the show. The people at the top often have no idea what they're doing.
Not counting Minister Tumwebaze, government officials often don’t understand just how the fast paced and dynamic world of technology works. That is why they do not understand that with a shoddy national backbone, certainly no secondary activity will be carried out on that channel — including the free Wi-Fi and the like.
They’re not going to make great policies that will help tech entrepreneurs. In their short-sightedness, they are unable to see how current legislation heavily limits innovation. There is also a lack of supporting policies. For example, there is no provision for tax exemption to startups. Kenya, our neighbours to the east, amended their Companies Act in 2015 to provide a tax break for startups, while also relaxing requirements for new enterprises to list on the Nairobi Securities Exchange.
The failure to accommodate startups means that many will fail without getting a chance to really shake up the industry with their innovations. This unfortunate cycle needs to be broken, and the way to do this is by making the government more sophisticated and tech-savvy.
The industry needs favourable policies and infrastructure that is actually going to be used productively and profitably.
The policies are limited because infrastructure is also limited. Put more money into this, rather than free Wi-Fi. Let the industry grow instead of nipping it in the bud, and the results will speak for themselves.