Welcome to Gulu – What it feels like being an Internet user at the edge of the network

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African data networks have improved immeasurably in the last 3 years.  There are still many problems like under-provisioning and vandalism but they are beginning to start to work. However, go only a short distance from the core networks and it’s a very different picture. This week we talk to Brian Longwe, Programme Manager, Internet Now! about the forgotten Internet users of Gulu.

If there’s connectivity and power, an e-mail can take a matter of seconds to get from Uganda’s capital Kampala to the Northern region capital of Gulu. However, it can take 6 hours to do the drive. Despite the region being the focus of a nasty conflict with the Lord’s Resistance Army, money has not been poured into infrastructure after it ended.

The road you would travel has at least 100 kilometres that is in a poor state of disrepair and there’s no roads to the villages surrounding Gulu. People still explain this lack of infrastructure by the past conflict but a number of years have passed since the conflict has ended.

5-10 kilometres outside of Gulu there is no power grid. A hospital right on the edge of town is connected to the grid but that’s about it. But the power grid is a mixed blessing. Gulu has just had a four day outage. As Longwe observes:”No-one is clear what the particular cause was. Some say it was the transmission from Jinja. Others that it was those lines from the river. It took 4 days to resolve the problem and it’s symbolic of the low priority this region has in terms of national development.”

There are really only two alternatives: generators or solar panels. During the outage, Longwe ran his office on solar panels. Generators make anything to do with electricity very expensive. Despite the problems, Longwe, who is a Kenyan, says it’s a nice place and people have been very welcoming.

All Uganda’s mobile operators have voice coverage in Gulu itself and this is pretty good but 5 kilometres out there are blackspots and there are extended areas of no coverage beyond that distance, between places.

Again all of the mobile operators have data coverage and the main players provide 3G but again coverage in town varies from player to player. 3G modems are the main source of connectivity for organizational users. Five minutes out of town you lose data coverage  and further north there is only 2G coverage:”Bandwidth is not optimized. It’s not seen as a market.” Operators offer corporate users copper, fibre or WiMAX.

One centre at Gulu University has fibre from utl, which is supposed to be 5 mbps but it barely manages 2 mbps on a good day. There are high levels of latency on this link and even more on the satellite links. The problem seems to stem from the fact that this particular operator has “over-sold” its international capacity and there is congestion at its international gateway. Longwe says that there are also high levels of packet loss on the Gulu-Kampala route.

So are all these problems that it is simply a small market that does not deserve attention? It is not heavily populated (Gulu itself has around 160,000 residents) but it is the main hub for the region. Longwe estimates that there are probably hundreds of corporate data customers and in the region of 10,000-15,000 Internet users:”A lot of NGOs have their HQs for servicing the north here and there is a substantial expat presence.” Unlike elsewhere, cyber-cafes in town remain busy.

However, Longwe tells a revealing story which gives an indication of tomorrow’s market. His organization identifies sites and sets up specially designed containers (which arrive “flat-packed”) that provide internet access. Recently they partnered with a Technical College at Unyama, 7 kilometres outside of Gulu.

Normally they provide two containers but a huge crowd of students gathered who told him, this is not enough so they put in 4 containers connected back to Gulu by a wireless network. The numbers using these containers has been “phemomenal” and it’s been a combination of research for their work and Facebook.

Internet Now! has Oxfam as its lead partner and it is ambitious project to deliver micro-working. Funding has been provided by the Dutch Postcode Lottery which has a fund for high-risk or difficult projects and given the constraints, this is certainly one of them.

At a local level, its other partners have been Kenyan NGO ALIN (who are responsible for deploying the containers and the solar panels); Barma Source (the source of micro-working); and Inveneo (who have been building the wireless networks).

The aim is to set up centres in the middle of communities and link them by wireless. A hundred centres are planned across nine districts:”We want to establish a local, sustainable enterprise which is called SINFA and get it to a point where it breaks even.”

Companies in the USA and UK want micro-tasks done that can be completed remotely:”Thus far we’ve given employment to around 90 individuals. Lives have been transformed in the short-term and people are getting higher than average levels of income for the region.

Correction in Issue 670’s story on LTE: Ghana’s Surfline is not yet operational but will start in Q1, 2014.

New video briefings this week:

Kahenya Kamunyu, Able Wireless on his low-cost Kenyan video streaming service using a Raspberry Pi

John Paul Barreto talks about Tanzanian ICT co-creation space Kinu

Video briefings on:

Mobile Branding – Closing the gap between hype and reality
Sammy Thuo, Director, Saracen Media on differentiating mobile brands in Africa
Laine Barnard, Founder, 8Brand - Mobile outlets as "giant waiting rooms" for selling airtime

Delivering Rural Broadband – Models that work
Kobus Roux, CSIR on getting rural schools connected using Wi-Fi mesh
Osama Manzar, Digital Empowerment Foundation on delivering broadband in rural India

Think before you launch an app – User-based research essential:
Mark Kamau, UX Lab on how research with users can overcome barriers to mobile apps adoption

Citizen Journalism:
Santos Okottah, Eziki on its citizen journalism app Reporta that's also being used for weddings

TV White Spaces Briefing from Dakar event sponsored by Google and Microsoft:
Paul Mitchell explains Microsoft's TV White Spaces pilots and why it thinks TVWS is important
Kai Wulff on Google's TV White Spaces pilots and why they are important for developing countries

Africa’s Tech Incubators:
Karim Sy on the innovative projects Jokko Labs supports and the expansion of its network

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