Telecom Wars – Life at three shillings a second

Mobile phone users

One month has passed since MTN, Zain, UTL, Warid and Orange all made headlines by simultaneously announcing a 50% reduction on call rates across all networks.

This interesting development in our telecommunication sector is already affecting mobile telecom subscribers and service providers in various ways. And the biggest winner or loser of this price war might just be Ugandan people.

There were all sorts of speculations, views and analysis in the media over this hot news. “Christmas Comes Early to Uganda,” read the headline of one of the stories. Most subscribers were understandably excited by the prospect of “talking longer for less,” as some telecom adverts put it.

Some people had doubts and made calls to test whether these new offers were for real or just another gimmick.
Others were curious as to exactly why and how the low rates had come about, and curiosity led to ‘wolokoso’ (lots of stories or gossip).

It’s said that Warid had printed huge billboards and placards of their ‘mega’ price drop to 5 shillings a second and moved to strategically advertise it along Entebbe Road. But no sooner had they returned to their offices in Kampala than the other networks announced an even lower rate of 3 shillings per second.

Now the advertising war is on as the companies come up with various promotions to make customers switch carriers or just talk more. MTN has Yarriba and Zone; Zain has Kika; utl has Endobo; Warid has Kawa and Pakalast; and Orange has Gyekiri and BuddyTalk. So are all these promotions really benefiting the customers?

Lulu, a postgraduate student at Makerere University, seemed irritated by the telecom posters all over Wandegeya.

“You can’t miss them unless you’re both blind and deaf,” she complained. “They’re everywhere now, on radio, TV, along the roads, on the shops, bars and even in the public toilets in town. It’s too much.”

But Moses Sundya, a bar attendant in Nakawa, who has a ‘nalongo’ (dual sim) phone and a ‘Kabiriti’ from Orange and MTN respectively, says “the promotion adverts help a lot because, for example, I bought these two phones at low prices after seeing them being advertised.”

“All networks are now emphasizing the 3 shillings per second rate but when you do the maths it comes to 180 shillings a minute, which is still high for many people,” said Magambo Phillip, a science research assistant at Makerere University.

“I’m not yet on Endobo because I think those things actually make you spend more. When you want to call someone on another network you have to load more. Those telecom guys are smart ‘kweri’,” said Hellen Nyana a long-time subscriber of utl.

So what about the airtime sellers? On Luwum Street, a woman called Mama Brenda, who sells airtime for all the networks says, “For the past few days customers have been buying airtime less than they used to, but I think it’s due to other factors other than low call rates.” Jajja Ruth (as people call her), who had just travelled to Kampala from her village in Ntungamo said change has been happening in the village.

“People are now using Warid in the village and it is fast becoming the darling of the people because of its Pakalast and lower call rates,” she said.

Gamusi, a taxi driver to Butaleja, says that he, and many others in his village, now prefers Zain.

“Many people were on MTN, even I but many have changed to Zain because MTN is now the one with poor network and it’s more expensive,” he said.

“It is also because of Kato Lubwama’s wolokoso-advert that attracts people to Zain,” he added with a smile.
So even with this informal survey, it is clear that people are changing their calling habits. But it remains uncertain as to whether it is the customer or the companies that will ultimately benefit.

“Yes, the prices are now more affordable than before and I spend a bit less on airtime. But they should improve their services at that fair price,” said Bob, a customer care consultant. Now that would be a big change.

By Hassan Higenyi