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How Coronavirus Exposed Telcom Companies In Rwanda

8 Min Read

A young man in his mid thirties living in one of the swanky suburbs of Kigali, attempted to place a WhatsApp video call shortly after midnight in two days after the government issued a country-wide curfew.

The phone rang, but the recipient could not pick the call. He received a message saying his Network Operator was not allowing such calls.

He tried a voice call. The phone rang, and popped up the same message, no calls were permitted.

The man became anxious and decided to Google search what was the cause. He found out that such scenarios could have been a result of his settings. He slid in his WhatsApp settings and authorized WhatsApp to use his mobile data to make calls and consume data.

He then made a second attempt.

He rang his friend. All calls were declined. His frustration began to itch him. He wondered why he was able to browse but fail to make calls. He was able to chat though.

He then asked another friend who is conversant with these IT matters. His friend works with a telecommunications company. He was advised to conduct an internet speed test.

Results? Shocking: 256Kbps.

That kind of speed, IT experts have told us, is like the speed last used in the early 90s. “That is like dial-up speed,” one IT expert said. “Such internet is maybe only found in some remotest areas, not in a place like Kigali.”

It turns out that the man’s internet was at the lowest point possible.

Another user, who shared with us his speed test results as seen below, lives in Kanombe, about 5km away from the airport.

Last week, the user in Kanombe who is on MTN network could hardly download a 5MB video, even simple browsing was a problem.

“The lockdown is one thing to have to deal with, but the internet speed especially on MTN is quite another. It is making working from home near impossible and certainly making a bad situation worse,” he said.

Taarifa tried to find out if this was not a specific case to these users.

In Kicukiro, another user conducted a speed test and shared his results: 220Kbps. His test was conducted twice, in March 5 and March 25.

Before the quarantine this user’s location had about 2.5Mbps, but the speed dropped mid March.

“I and my neighbors have called and informed service providers of this weakness. It is now a year and nothing has been done about it. Some body (regulator) needs to act!” he said, angrily.

Apparenrly due to a large number of users hooked on the internet during the lockdown period, telecoms have been experiencing a surge in usage and frequently found difficult coping up.

The burden to provide quality and faster speed internet is not current, but the challenge suddenly escalated during the lockdown because literally every user on smartphones and computers remained active almost 24 hours.

MTN Rwanda CEO told Taarifa that indeed the network operator was experiencing some challenges.

“Yes, the team is receiving these (complaints) and working round the clock to meet the growing demand that has come with everyone working from home,” said Mitwa Kaemba Ng’ambi.

Airtel Rwanda claims it has better internet, but some of its users had similar complaints.

Both operators are facing more or less challenges because they use the same technology, 3G.

Each network has been investing in upgrades to provide sufficient and quality speed, but they have not satisfied their subscribers.

Both operators have no license for 4G connectivity, except for KTRN that enjoys a monopoly.

MTN and Airtel are simply carriers of 4G. The technology belongs to KTRN that provides the connectivity at a wholesale arrangement.

KTRN also has been experiencing troubles with increased demand causing disruptions and thus inability to provide quality internet, prompting users to switch back to MTN or Airtel’s 3G, which is not that good, but stable most of the time.

Note that stability and quality are totally different parameters.

Taarifa is informed that the two operators have had issues with government offering KTRN a monopoly to operate 4G, yet KTRN itself has not met its expectations, although government gave them end of March to have fixed their mess.

After pumping millions of dollars in 3G, the telecoms had less interest in making more investments into 4G before they made return on their initial investment in 3G.

Things moved quickly and Rwanda needed 4G technology, thus offering KTRN the license to operate 4G, but the company has since not made this technology easily available to Rwandans.

Now that the population has increasingly become tech savvy and highly dependent on internet, particularly the youthful demographic, MTN and Airtel are agitating for ways to upgrade and meet the expectations from their subscribers.

Their dilemma is that whatever investment they make, 3G is not what the subscribers want to settle for.

This, experts say, is definitely a policy issue. “The government needs to work out a formula in the interest of the population,” an independent industry expert who has worked in government  before in the sector, and very conversant with the dynamics, told us.

“The regulator (RURA) has to step in and do something, because this issue has been dragging on and on for years,” he said. “A decision has to be made,” he says, “and no one else can make any decision that fixes this problems except government.”

Meanwhile, other internet providers such as Liquid Telecom, are closing in with fiber technology rollout in households and offices with up to 100Mbps. But their numbers are depressing. They serve a small fraction of users and at a premium. Most households still depend on wireless networks than fiber.

According to the Rwanda Utility Regulatory Authority (RURA), there are 9 million active mobile-cellular telephone subscriptions in Rwanda.

The number of internet subscriptions increased from 5,475,448 to 6,234,520 in 2019, representing an increase of 13.9%.

The capacity of international bandwidth increased from 49,074 Mbps to 64,548 Mbps, which accordingly reflected an increase of 31.5%.

The increase in internet subscriptions and capacity of international bandwidth is mainly attributed to the affordability of smartphone devices and flexibility of internet bundles.

However, the problem at play is the capacity of operators to distribute quality and faster connectivity at a given time regardless of how many users are active with unlimited consumption.

While those in the urban areas where there is increased allocation of quality connect complain, those in the countryside don’t bother anymore.

Although users tolerate these disturbing and ubiquitous experiences, thanks to the lockdown that has exposed the weaknesses so vividly, the industry needs a permanent fix sooner than later.