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Monday, 18 August 2014

Why Uganda Communications Commission is considered a feeble institution

By Sam Agona
Uganda Communications Commission is the communications regulatory body in Uganda. It was created in 1997 by Communications Act Cap 106 Laws of Uganda with a principal goal of developing a modern communications sub-sector and Infrastructure in Uganda.  It is mandated to perform the following among others: Licensing and standards; Spectrum management; Tariff regulation; Research and development; Consumer empowerment; Policy advice & implementation; Rural communications development and Capacity building. 

UCC House in Kampala; Adopted from Daily Monitor 

In my personal opinion, I think UCC is a frail and feeble institution due to the way it has operated where its decisions matter the most and where it should had shown its muscle the most. A few circumstances below should help justify my conclusion;
1. Poor standards in the telecom sector; So many telecoms have come up with standards which are not actually applicable technically but use them as market ploy, a few years ago Warid Telecom came up with3.75G, just to mention, such a standard is only around Africa. Recently, MTN Uganda launched its 4G. This is the poorest service (in terms of coverage) at the moment, its modems work strictly within a radius of less than 5kms of Kampala, even where it has coverage, its speeds do not meet the specification of 68Mbps DL/ 17 Mbps UL. This is epitomizes a typical dupe to buyers; they should not be in the market. It is worth knowing whether UCC monitors such.

An attempt to connect using MTN’s 4G from Ntinda, Kampala; snapshot by Sam Agona
2. Elimination of counterfeit phones; unlike as announced with timelines, UCC has failed to implement the elimination of counterfeit phones. The plan was new counterfeit mobile phones that had previously not subscribed to any network would be denied access to all networks by January 31, 2013 and by July 1st, 2013 all counterfeit mobiles would be disconnected. However to no surprise, till date 9th July, so many subscribers are still purchasing and are using counterfeit phones.
Photo adopted from the web
3. Penalties to operators; This has always been a threat, which has actually never occurred, making it look like poor quality of service has ceased to be an issue. Continuous threats without action, has left operators sure that nothing can happen to them, and they are right.
4. Clumping down radio stations only; UCC shows it muscle the most when it is comes to closing down radio stations due to political programs that are deemed to be anti-government. During the Tinyefuza saga, lots of threats were issued. Earlier in the year, UCC suspended two informative political programs on Hits FM based in Fort Portal thus making UCC look more like a political arm.
Adopted from PC Tech Magazine
5. Issuing frequency in some areas very selectively; this has been very rampant with radio stations, some business people who are willing to invest in radio business in Uganda have been denied frequency claiming it is exhausted, only for frequency to be given to the next applicant who has political backing of some sort, this leaves the impartiality of the commission totally on the line. Q FM in Lira was licensed after so many other applicants were denied license for the same area, what does that mean?
6. Duping adverts; some adverts by telecom companies have been misleading and sending wrong information; the commission is directly responsible for this but no serious action was taken at such times, telecoms only pulled them down due to public outcry where the public deems an advert is inappropriate. Some of the adverts are too shallow in information, thus duping the customer into purchasing what is not right for them.
7. Sim card registration; this has been a failed project so far, a project that was supposed to end by March, 2013 is still ongoing. After so many subscribers registering, then having their registration details lost, UCC kept of extending deadline dates of simcard registration and at the moment, not many Ugandans treat simcard registration as a serious exercise. Besides they think there is a hidden agenda behind having simcards registered which is a sign of poor sensitization.  
A billboard at Odokomit, Lira – Kampala Road to inform registration; photo by Dr. George Wodbura Odongo 
8. Number portability; to empower the customers, number portability has been advocated for by Ugandans for a very long time. UCC as a main institution governing telecoms should had implemented way back, but because some major market players would be at loss when subscribers move away in mass from their system with their prefix codes, UCC has always played the coward in such projects because it would equally lose finances. This is a huge betrayal to Ugandans.
9. Roaming fees within East Africa orchestrated by greedy telecom companies; earlier, it was free to receive calls roaming in East African countries, mainly between Kenya and Uganda. Recently, to receive a Safaricom call on MTN roaming, the receiving subscriber must have airtime. This comes at a time when East African countries claim to be pushing for integration of all sorts; I find this so retrogressive, degenerating and subversive to the idea of free trade. UCC does not see this.
10. Internet bundle packaging; It is claimed that internet is a universal right, its access on the most common platform (mobile) is down to data bundling, telecom companies in Uganda have various bundling packages to the discretion of the customer. However some of them have used this to heavily cheat subscribers. Airtel Uganda allows one to purchase data and on its expiry, one may be notified by the system or not, but billing will default to one’s airtime account at a different rate. Therefore, even if a subscriber had Ugx. 50,000, it would run out in a few hours of usage unknowingly, worse still if one has a bundle running, they cannot buy another bundle onto it, meaning, if you have 10MB on your account, and need to download a file of 12MB, you will not be able to buy the extra 2MB that you need unless the bundle expires. This is ludicrous a policy. UCC cannot protect users from this.
11. Star TV decoder case on Quality of set top boxes. Star Times imported DVB-T decoders and had them in stock, UCC declared them obsolete, but a year later star times still continued selling DVB-T instead of DVB-T2 decoders. Further, it is unfortunate that DVB-T2 is not reverse compatible with DVB-T decoders, therefore they shall have to be dumped. UCC again loses here.

Picture showing a typical decoder; Adopted from the Web
12. Failure to implement uniform USSD codes; it was agreed that USSD codes would be uniform, inquiries would be all uniform, but Airtel uses 1100, MTN uses 123 or 0772123, to buy data on MTN and same way UTL, Warid Telecoms among others all use different codes. This is a sign of a failed project due to poor implementation. You need to remember that UCC only worked hard to suspend a USSD Code for IPC fundraising during campaign period.
13. Digital migration; failed to even commence, apart from private pay TV providers such as star times, Go TV and others, the public migration being run by UCC and UBC (I deliberately leave UBC out of this for now) is one of the most poorly managed ICT projects we have had in Uganda.  They have tried a lot when it comes to sensitization, unfortunately in rural areas, so many people do not know about digital migration.

A billboard at Odokomit, Lira – Kampala Road to sensitize about Digital migration, unfortunately it has never happened. Photo by Dr. George Wodbura Odongo 
14. The unheard green phones of smile telecom; a few years ago, smile telecom introduced green handsets which ran on Wimax, allowing users to log on with multiple profiles and make calls on the same device. It was a convenient technology but with an utterly poor network. Subscribers purchased these phones, but eventually they stopped working, the holders of these devices were never given an option by smile telecom, they simply lost money after being duped. UCC was aware about these phones on the market but no action was taken in regard to their sustained usability.
15. Failure to deal with the spam messages problem; telecoms send too many unsolicited messages, Airtel and MTN look to be the leader at this. Before that, I am sure you received messages from concert organizers, launching of churches, job hoaxes among others. Now, these people go and buy your numbers from someone internal to a given telecom, they run a select query which chooses your number based on some parameters and they start spamming you. UCC has always been aware about this, several threats have been made but as usual, no action.
To conclude, I could write a lot more about the frailties of a great institution like UCC, but it would only pay if it changed its ways and walked the talk as desired by consumers.

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