Monday, January 2, 2012

Ugandans sleepless over Americans access to their airwaves

By Esther Nakkazi

American Tower Corporation has taken over all MTN Uganda towers in Uganda but this is having a backlash on the deal as Ugandan consumers think this could be a ploy by Americans to access their ‘airwaves’ and hijack their base stations.

Early December, the American Tower Corporation, a leading owner and operator of wireless and broadcast communication sites in North America, and MTN Group Limited entered into a definitive agreement to establish a new joint venture tower company in Uganda.

ATC Uganda, formed out of this joint venture, has acquired all MTN Uganda’s existing 1,000 tower sites, for $175 million, a statement from Boston said. The company also owns Essar Telecom Infrastructure, which it acquired last year.

To Ugandans, the acquisition is significant because it will spur outsourcing among telecoms, which has only started with tower sharing. But to others, in a combination of ignorance and fear, the Americans will be monitoring Uganda’s ‘airwaves’, infringing on their privacy and hasten insecurity.

“It makes sense for telecoms to divest the business of handling masts to third party companies, through outsourcing but I feel we do not need an American company to do it, Ugandan companies have been doing it,” said Fred Bbale, a systems administrator working with the Government.

The debate has been going back and fourth on an IT professionals knowledge sharing online forum, I-network about how it would now be an easy walk for Americans to access and monitor all MTN Ugandans subscribers financial details. Through mobile money? Maybe.

“It will be easier for Americans to monitor their interests in the Uganda economy if they get direct control on MTN Towers. Our personal details with MTN cannot be safe with Americans. Generally it is a threat!” wrote Hadadi Kigozi on the I-Network Dgroup.

Another young University law student also a subscriber with MTN said he knows that even with just using the blackberry or iphone, the Americans can easily know his location and know what he is communicating and with whom. So acquisition to the MTN towers would just give them more access to him and he hates it.

However, there is a difference of opinion at least by a few who think it has no effect. “There is no personal details of yours on tower sites unless you had your name, address and phone number etched into the metal of the towers,” commented Noah Sematimba of Warid Telecoms.

“The Americans do not even need access to the towers to monitor the 'waves' being talking about. Anybody can do that. There are a lot of cheap tools available for GSM hacking and base station hijacking available and with some little extra effort, anybody could replicate what they think the Americans can do without going to the towers,” said James Wire Lunghabo an IT consultant and managing director of Linux Solutions.

ATC Uganda will be managed by American Tower, which will hold a 51percent stake and pay $89 million for this stake while MTN Group will hold a 49 percent stake. American Tower also expects that ATC Uganda will build approximately 280 tower sites for MTN Uganda over the next three years. The transaction is expected to close in the first half of 2012, upon which, ATC Uganda will be the largest owner and operator of tower sites in Uganda.

“Even Wikipedia would tell you that they do not need ATC Uganda-the newly created company- to do what they need to do,” commented Paul Bagyenda a computer scientist. But the dread of ‘Americans are coming’, the IT gurus still is worrisome to some Ugandans.


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