Uganda Communications Commission (the Commission) is the regulator in the development of a modern Communications Sector in Uganda. Accordingly, the Commission regulates telephone services, radio and television, postal services and the airwaves used by all wireless radio devices.
On 30 January 2020, the COVID 19 outbreak was declared a Public Health Emergency of International Concern the World Health Organisation (WHO), in Uganda, His Excellency the President has led the campaign against the spread of the pandemic by prescribing and popularising several preventive measures. These measures rotate around social distancing and regular washing or disinfecting of hands.
ICTs have come to play a significant role in facilitating the campaign against COVID-19 and supporting the continuation of operations in different sectors the Commission is working closely with the different operators to enable Uganda in harnessing some of the opportunities presented by ICTs in this period. For example, radio and television are supporting the information dissemination and communication of accurate, timely and authentic information to the populace.
Telecoms are supporting with SMS and caller tunes to sensitise subscribers, connectivity to enable Working from Home, social networking and facilitating the COVID-19 emergency call centre with a bouquet of access means (Call, USSD, WhatsApp) and a zero-rated COVID19 Uganda website. Telecoms are also supporting electronic transactions which are facilitating Electronic commerce; Courier services are delivering goods bought electronically, and following the closure of schools, children’s education is facilitated through e-learning by television and the internet.
In order to minimise the risk of misinformation and disinformation, which have the potential to distort facts and cause panic among members of the public, suspicion and social unrest, the Commission has issued public advisories against such practices.
Providing robust and secure connectivity to individuals, businesses and governments has never been of greater importance. Under the policy guidance of the Ministry of ICT & National Guidance, the Commission is facilitating and enabling operators in the communications sector who are working round the clock to ensure that their networks are providing the necessary backbone infrastructure for communication, alternative work arrangements, support for emergency services and information dissemination on COVID-19.
With regard to supporting robust and consistent communications, the Commission either unilaterally or in conjunction with other stakeholders, has made the following sector-wide interventions:
We have continuously provided information to the public on the COVID-19 pandemic and the harnessing of ICTs safely.
Ensuring that Telecommunications operators fully embrace the effort against COVID-19 by transmitting advisory messages to subscribers through SMS, cell broadcasts and caller tunes. This has happened despite a significant surge in demand for network resources, which has affected the quality of voice, SMS and data services, as well as increased pressure at call centres.
To ease the strain on people and also reduce cash transactions, which is one of the avenues through which the COVID-19 may be spread, telecom operators have waived transactional charges on mobile money transfers. This is expected to attract consumers to use electronic transactions more than the traditional paper money.
The Commission has urged all broadcasters (Radio and Television) to transmit, and air live the President’s and other leading Government officials’ addresses on COVID-19.
Designated and authorise code 919 to reduce telephone numbers that the public needs to memorise in accessing assistance and making inquiries, and reporting health emergencies related to COVID-19.
Granted temporary authorization to Ministry of Health, District Local authorities and their agents to deploy outdoor broadcasting apparatus commonly known as “Bizindalo”. The ban has been temporarily lifted to complement mainstream broadcasters in facilitating greater awareness and sensitisation about the COVID-19 pandemic at the grassroots.
The Commission has provided guidance to the public and broadcasters on circulating fake news and the dangers and repercussions of misinformation. This has included guiding broadcasters on professional conduct in keeping with the laws of Uganda to the extent that some broadcasters have been sanctioned in line with the Uganda Communications Act 2013.
The Commission has directed broadcasters to immediately stop all advertisement and programmes that are intended to promote the use of herbal and other remedies against COVID-19 unless approved by the National Drug Authority (NDA).
The Commission has issued an advisory on cyber-crime, cautioning parents, in particular, to monitor their children’s online activity during the lockdown.
The Commission, through its UgCERT (Computer Emergency Response Team), has established a fact-checker to tackle unscrupulous content creators publishing and distributing “disinformation” and “fake news” intentionally designed to mislead the public.
The Commission has adopted a pragmatic approach to regulating the sector during this critical time by recognising that planned work schedules may need adapting and rescheduling with more focus directed at COVID-19. We are fast-tracking decision making and granting approvals where required.
With policy guidance from the Ministry of ICT & National Guidance, the necessary protection and assurance of critical infrastructure, and the designation of communications services as “essential” was secured. Consequently, designated employees of the communications service providers and their sub-contractors have been granted essential services status. This has helped to ensure minimum interruption to communications services.
Irene is the Ag. Executive Director UCC