MSI: Reaching Out to the Community with Wireless Internet

by Alan Anderson
4 August 2010
Within the Faculty of Technology at Makerere University, the Department of Electrical Engineering has established an outreach program to support community wireless networks based at “telecenters” in small cities and rural areas, where the cost of bandwidth is still high. (The advent of the undersea cable from the Indian Ocean is expected to reduce costs eventually.) The main goal of the wireless program is to make connectivity more affordable for telecenters and the public through a communication infrastructure that is shared and managed by the community. The university helps implement these networks and provides follow-up support and maintenance of the networks.
A related goal is to train students, teachers, and technical staff at the university and to have these trainees work with the technical staff at the telecenters. The MSI is gradually becoming affiliated with this program, with one student now working under Julius Butime of the Department of Electrical Engineering and another studying at the University of Pretoria.
MSI students in the department spend their first year on coursework for the MSc program, said Dr. Butime. Those admitted can apply to the project for this research in their second year. “The first student admitted was Peterson Mwesiga,” he said, “who is looking at using receivers that can adapt to different frequencies to transmit data. This allows a device to jump to different frequency bands to transmit data, and that expands capacity. We do this as a service, to give access to people, and we’re looking at a business model that will let these rural telecenters be self-sustaining. We have two more people coming on and will finally have about six students in training under the MSI.”
But, like many such departments in and beyond Africa, the Department of EE itself struggles with an overload of students and a small faculty. “We don’t have much capacity for supervision because we can’t keep our faculty. The Department of Electrical Engineering is very popular – we have about 1000 undergraduates. But on the faculty we have only five PhDs and about seven MScs. The rate of completion is very low because students are hired away by industry as soon as they complete their bachelor’s. So there are few graduate students, which is a bad thing, and not enough mentoring to ensure quality for the ones we do have. Salaries for a PhD here are $1000 a month, so most of my colleagues are not in their offices, they’re out consulting to make ends meet.” 

Several years ago, the World Bank financed a major Millennium Science Initiative (MSI) program to help strengthen science and technology capacity in Uganda. Approximately half of this investment, the Bank's largest S&T commitment to date, supports a competitive grants program for a variety of university research projects. The financing supports stipends and fees for graduate students, faculty salary supplements, research equipment, and infrastructure. Another major portion is dedicated to transferring technical knowledge to the private sector through academic-business linkages and educational activities for farmers, health workers, and small-business people. The MSI program resembles RISE in providing full support for MSc and PhD students, which is extremely difficult to secure in Africa. The August 2010 blog post series illustrates some of the activities supported by the MSI.