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SPECIAL REPORT: Inside Uganda Internet Backbone Infrastructure Wars

NITA-U continues to come under pressure over the management of the National Backbone infrastructure and the cost of internet, ChimpBusiness reports.

A whistleblower has revealed to president Museveni that NITA-U officials signed with an unfavourable internet provision contract with Soliton Telmec, a Kenyan company.

The president was informed that for every Mbps of Internet delivered to any government agency through a cable owned by government through NITA-U, Soliton charges NITA-U $200 (Shs725, 400) as transport charges.

According to an investigation by ChimpBusiness, Nita-U believes some wrong elements unhappy about the recent contracts handed to some foreign firms, are trying to undermine its leadership.

“The detractors have been recycling old lies to discredit Nita-U,” said an official in the telecom industry who preferred anonymity so as to speak freely.

“We are dealing with a fog created by unending Chinese companies’ business wars in Africa.”

The whistleblower said Soliton’s charges cannot be explained as government owns the optic fibre cable network in Uganda.

NITA-U Communications Manager, Steven Kirenga sought to explain the specific role of Soliton Telmec, saying the authority didn’t handover any form of regulation of the National Backbone Infrastructure (NBI) to any third party.


He said NITA-U continues to operate as per the NITA Act 2009.

“NITA-U outsourced the management of the NBI to a managed services provider, Soliton Telmec, to manage the day to day operations to ensure that we provide a reliable and consistently ‘on’ service to our customers, Ministries, Departments and Local Governments,” said Kirenga.

Government spends about Shs 12bn on managing the infrastructure which the whistleblower says is a huge amount given the nature of task at hand.

Pressed to explain this cost, Kirenga said the contractor’s scope of work goes beyond maintenance.

“The day to day operations include maintenance of all NBI equipment at MDA sites and transmission sites across the country i.e. Network equipment, Generators, air conditioners, CCTV, UPS, Inverters etc,” said Kirenga.

The contractor is required to maintain over 2,400kms of fibre, pay electricity bill for transmission sites and the main distribution center, make payments of fuel for generators and meet costs of health insurance and salary of staff.

Soliton also foots the bill of insurance of the Infrastructure; maintains vehicles and fibre network and all NBI equipment; and also run a network operating centre and help desk.

Uganda government did not seek to manage the network hence securing a service provider.

Kirenga says globally, the Managed Services model is the best practice and allows for institutions to benefit from shared value by having a Network partner take over the management and enhancement of highly evolved network process capabilities which leads to significant enhancement in the delivery of a superior Customer Experience.

“The assertion that NITA-U has overseen the financial loss of tax payer’s money is not true as the engagement of a managed service partner is an industry best practice. Reference can be made to banks and telecommunications companies where Business Process Outsourcing has been carried out as testimony to this being, indeed, best practice,” he observed.

Outsourcing is part of Government’s BPO program as outsourced parties provide employment to Ugandan citizens.

While NITA-U is providing high speed internet to Government Ministries, Departments and Agencies, the cost remains a contentious issue.

The whistleblower said in his/her report to President Museveni that Soliton charges NITA-U $200 per Mbps to a government ministries, departments and agencies.

Kirenga wondered: “Surely, on the face of it, if NITA-U charges $70 per Mbps to a ministry, how would it manage to pay $200 per Mbps for the same capacity to Soliton in transport charges? This is clearly not true.”

He said NITA-U remained committed to digitizing Uganda by reducing the cost of internet connectivity country.

“This effort has been deliberate and we are happy to have led the industry in reducing the cost of connectivity to Government offices by over 84 percent since 2010, when 1Mbps cost a government office $1200 to the current cost of $70 for 1Mbps.”

The president was informed that under Nita-U contract, government is charges for a manhole (point where fibres are interconnected) $1,300 (Shs4.7m) while the same company charges MTN Uganda only Shs400,000, the average price on the market.

In response, Kirenga said this was untrue.

“A simple check in the market will reveal that a transmission manhole is more than just a manhole cover. It includes culverts, a concrete cover, joint boxes (JB)to mention but a few. Therefore to state that the cost would be only Shs 400,000 would not be a fair assertion.

Manhole and accessories    

Manholes are precast with a diameter of 1100mm (outer diameter) and 900mm (inner diameter), 200mm thickness.

The duct/pipe entry holes to manhole are placed at the bottom, 100mm from the base such that it lines up with the underground ducts. The manhole base is 1300mm diameter and 100mm thick.

The precast concrete top section is 1100mm diameter and 100mm thickness. Accessories include cable bearer that holds the cable slack into one position.

Transportation & Installation 

Precast manholes transported to site are placed in excavated pits (2m by 2m) with the top cover raised slightly above the ground or at ground level for roadside path ways.

The level of the base is made in such a way that the duct entry holes to the Manhole line up with the underground cable ducts. Backfill material is placed around the ring and compacted.

The President was informed that under the NITA-U contract, a 24-port Cisco switch (data equipment) is charged at $2,600 (Shs9.4m) and the same is at around Shs1.2m on open market.

However, Kirenga said the contract for extensions to the NBI defines a Cisco 2960 24 port.

Culverts used for manholes

“This switch on the market starts at $2,400. A quick search on the internet would show this price. Costs for switches are determined by the functionality required of those switches. Just stating the number of ports is not enough to determine the functionality or the cost of a switch,” he observed.

Lastly, Museveni was informed that while Uganda Telecom owns free data centres at Telecom House, Mengo and Wandegeya, NITA-U went ahead to outsource the management of data centres to Computer Point/ Sybyl, an Indian firm.

The president was further told that NITA-U was in the process of outsourcing the E-Payment Gateway facility, placing sensitive security information in the hands of foreigners.

It will be recalled that in 2010, NITA-U constructed the National Data Centre as part of the NBI contract.

To keep up with what officials described as the “global best practice”, NITA-U outsourced the maintenance to a managed services partner, Computer Point.

“Maintenance doesn’t mean management of the servers and the information therein. The maintenance includes; servicing of generators, fire extinguishers servicing to mention but a few,” explained Kirenga.

He further stated that servers being hosted in the national data centre are managed and administered by the appropriate IT staff from the Ministry that owns the servers.

“As an example, Ministry of Finance hosts the servers that run the mission critical Integrated Financial Management System at the National Data Centre. Access to these servers is restricted to the authorized Finance Ministry IT personnel,” said Kirenga, adding, “not even NITA-U officials can access these servers or the information therein.”

He also cited the example of Uganda Revenue Authority which runs a host of applications like eTax that is hosted at the National Data Centre.

“It therefore goes that the inference that the information being kept at the National Data Centre can be compromised by a third party is not true. The Electronic Payment Gateway information will not be compromised as the article alludes at all,” he emphasised.

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