Ugandan phone users are subscribing to networks they believe satisfy them in terms of needs, service, affordability and status.
Presently, there are five operators in Uganda namely: MTN, Uganda Telecom, Zain, Warid, Orange and more have been licensed to enter into the Ugandan market.
To stay afloat in this competitive environment, operators are becoming more innovative. Customers are benefiting from the competition as they take advantage of the various incentives such as cheaper calls and a wide range of value added services.
This has presented customers an opportunity to compare notes and decide the network they want to sign up to depending on their lifestyle and needs. Zain, which introduced One-Network about two years ago, is the network of choice for those doing business or travelling across borders.
Mr. James Mutaawe, a trader who operates between Kampala and Nairobi and a has been using the Zain network for over six years, praises the benefits of the One-Network strategy.
"I now find it easy and cheap to communicate with my distributors in Kenya through the one-network facility," Mr. Mutaawe said.
The incentive offers its subscribers a seam-less service within East Africa and it was later rolled out to include other countries in Africa where the company is operating.
Zain's External Affairs Manager Mr. Fred Masadde, in an interview with Business Power, said: "One-Net Work is one of the incentives that we give in our endeavour to deliver more value to our customers. We also attract more customers because we are an innovative network."
A few months after Zain launched this facility, MTN came up with a similar facility called 'Home & Away' where it partnered with Kenya's Safaricom and Tanzania's Vodacom.
MTN's Marketing Manager Mr. Isaac Nsereko, admits that innovations through such incentives spur growth in the number of customers.
Mr. Nsereko said: "Since we launched the 'Home & Away' service in 2007, we have seen a 300 per cent growth in terms of the volume of calls".
MTN Zone; is another incentive that the company introduced around August 2008 where customers are given a discount depending on how busy the network is at the particular time they make the call.
"From the time we launched this service, more than one million customers have joined our network and this has boosted our subscribers to four million," Mr. Nsereko said.
The operators have become even more innovative with the most recent venture into the money transfer business. This service has excited subscribers because of its efficiency and speed particularly for those who want to avoid the long queues at the banking halls when sending or receiving money.
MTN was the first to launch this service last year followed by Zain who launched Zap in June this year.
Mr. Masadde said: "Zap enables Zain subscribers to use their phone handsets to transfer money, pay their bills, top up airtime and buy goods without physically using money."
This service provides customers with increased security and flexibility, there-by reducing the need to carry cash and ensuring that payments between friends, family, business partners and merchants remain secure and timely.
Zain is partnering with Standard Chartered Bank to hold a settlement account.
Ms Irene Kirabo a businesswoman dealing in ladies and children's wear in Kampala, says: "Zap has helped me to transfer money to my suppliers and I receive money via this service. This has reduced my movements at the time when I am supposed to be attending to my clients".
Corporate companies like Coca Cola, Nakumatt and Game have already expressed interest in the service. In other incentives, operators reward subscribers with extra airtime or give discounts.
Uganda Telecom's Corporate and Public Relations Manager, Mr. Mark Kaheru said their brand's motto is 'Get more for less' and they offer a range of 360 products, which include; mobile service, satellite, internet, data and fixed lines.
"The kind of services we offer has made people choose Uganda Telecom and many have remained loyal to the Big Blue network because we give value for money," Mr. Kaheru said.
The company has other incentives like jazz and a 20 per cent pay back on airtime, among others.
Uganda Telecom, in one of its latest innovations dubbed 'Kasana' has introduced a phone that has both solar and electric batteries. Meaning the phone can be charged by sunshine. It's intended to serve people who don't have access to power.
Warid Telecom, which has been in operation for about two years, has joined the competition with juicy incentives to lure customers. These incentives have enabled the operator to attract over 1.5 million subscribers.
Through the company's in-coming call bonus incentive, all pre-paid new and old subscribers are paid Shs25 for every 30 seconds whenever they receive calls from other networks.
Head of Marketing and Customer Care Warid Telecom Mr. Raja Haider Hussein, in an interview with Business Power last week, said: "This particular service gives Warid subscribers flexibility to communicate with their counterparts on other networks. Those who cannot afford to recharge their phones all the time are given extra airtime to make calls".
Mr. Hussein said with this service, the more calls one receives the more airtime one gets. The second incentive Warid subscribers are benefiting from is the recently launched Pakalast tariff service. It operates in a way that when any valid user subscribes to this service with a Shs1,000 fees, he/she is automatically entitled to 24-hours free calls to only Warid subscribers.
Mr. Hussein said: "In the last one-month, we have attracted over 300,000 new customers and a lot of the existing subscribers have also been using multiple SIMs". Such incentives have seen a number of people owning multiple SIM-cards.
Mr. Bernard Ankunda, a resident of Ntinda, said he has five SIM-cards from all the operators and switches from one to another whenever need arises. "Initially, I had one SIM-card but now I have five and they have been beneficial to me because I save a lot of money at the end of the day," Mr. Ankunda said.
This poses a challenge when operators seek to keep track of their subscribers because none is certain whether the number each network claims includes or not those with more than one hand-set or with multiple SIM cards.
Some subscribers have chosen to buy more than one SIM card from other mobile companies to tap into lower tariff charges enjoyed when calls are made within the same network. These subscribers may also use one SIM card to access services from one of the providers and then use another card to access voice and data services from a cheaper provider.
According to Uganda Communications Commission (UCC), the Tele-density across the country was 29.4 per cent in December 2008 a sharp increase from 2.8 per cent in 2002/3. This means there are over 8.5 million mobile subscribers in the country. This is below UCC's switching capacity, which is estimated at 11.5 million lines.
Mr. Nsereko revealed that MTN will soon be registering its five millionth subscriber. Zain, formerly Celtel, the pioneer operator in the industry, currently boosts of over 2.5 million subscribers.
Mr. Masadde, while commenting about people having multiple SIM cards, said: "These are hard times and everybody in the country needs an extra value. Those travelling across to Kenya for business are looking for a cheaper operator and also checking to identify the best time to make calls.
Subscribers are also buying mobile handsets, which have dual SIM card capability because they want to enjoy the best tariffs. This has seen the demand for such phones go up. This has seen mobile phone manufacturers join into the dance to satisfy the growing trends of consumers.
Nokia has the Nokia N70 and N89, both of which have provision for two cards, Samsung has the SGH-D880 and Motorola has the MING A1800 to mention but a few. There are also new phone innovations like the Black Berry, which is a line of wireless handheld device that supports push e-mail, mobile telephone, text messaging among other functions.