7.4 ICT in Ethiopia

In this section I will explore the current state of ICT in Ethiopia, and the plans and aspiration the government have for the future. The Ethiopian government aspire to leapfrog Ethiopia into the information age. Ethiopia is too poor not to make use of ICT it is said. There is a noticeable aspiration in the African continent to leapfrog the continent into the information age. This can be seen by the quite rapid building of mobile phone networks, bypassing the fixed line telephone technology.

It is true that the current telecommunication infrastructure is poorly developed. Few have a telephone in their house, in 2003 there was only 435,000 main telephone lines in Ethiopia according to the World Fact Book. The number of mobile phone subscribers was only 178,000 in 2004. Report has it that the number of mobile users are increasing rapidly. The state owned Ethiopian Telecommunications Corporation (ETC) are increasing the capacity of the mobile network, and according to The Reporter the number of mobile subscribers has increased to 510,000. This is still few even by African standards, however. To rectify this the current government in Ethiopia have grand visions.

In a presentation about e-readiness (Docktor ) a number of African countries are measured according different indicators for e-readiness. This presentation uses a five point scale for measuring the level of e-readiness for each of the indicators: Low, Low-Medium, Medium, Medium-High and High. Here I present some of the results for Ethiopia.

PC penetration Low
Bandwidth Low-Medium
Government web pages Medium
Secured servers Low
Gross enrollment ration in education Low
IT students in tertiary education Medium-High
High tech exports Low

According to an article at Guardian Unlimited, Ethiopia is using 10% of it’s GDP every year on ICT. The government plans to invest more than $100 million on pubic sector computing in the next five years. The article is based on an interview with, among others, Ethiopia’s prime minister Meles Zenawi. In the article Meles is cited to say (Cross 2005):

I want to see ICT pervade all our activities as a government, not just in the urban areas. We want to connect all our villages in two to three years. All education services, likewise. We would also like to provide a bit of tele-medicine.

4,000km of optical fiber lines has already been laid out, this lines connects all the regional states in Ethiopia. It is planned that by 2007 none in Ethiopia will live more than a few kilometers from a broadband access point. This network are going to support two major ICT initiatives, Schoolnet ( http://www.schoolnet.et/) and WeredaNet.

Schoolnet is an education network which would provide more than 450 secondary educational institutions with access to general ICT, e- mail, and the WWW. It would allow these institutions to receive streamed Internet- and broadcast TV-based educational content from media agencies. The hope is that this will improve the quality of education and help to overcome Ethiopia shortage of qualified teachers. Some schools already receive video lessons broadcast for eight hours a day by satellite TV.

WeredaNet connects 600 Weredas to 11 regional capitals. This network supports IP telephony and video conferencing, in addition to more traditional Internet traffic like WWW and e-mail. Half of the links is by cable and half by satellite connection. The hope is that this will improve public service. Previously official reports could take months to reach the capital. This network was mobilised to train officials for the general election in May 2005. A web site showing the result of the election is available at http://www.electionsethiopia.org/.

There are also plans to connect 30 research and operational agricultural centers and to connect all major referral hospitals to form the basis of a national telemedicine infrastructure. Through this grand plan for the improvement of Ethiopia’s ICT infrastructure the Ethiopian government hopes to leapfrog Ethiopia into the information age. Ethiopia do not have any significant legacy systems to worry about and can apply modern telecommunication, multimedia and data transfer technologies.

To implement this grand vision Ethiopia, ETC and the ministry of Capacity Building have signed contracts with several companies. The previously mentioned 4,000km of fiber lines have been built by Alcatel, China International Telecommunication Construction Corporation (CITCC) and Siemens. This lines have been laid to support mobile and fixed telephone users, and for data traffic. The plan is to lay more than 10,000km of fiber optics lines

A more data traffic related project have been implemented by a South-African company called Business Connexion. Business Connexion is a Cisco gold partner. Using Cisco technology a data network with it’s core in Addis Ababa have been made. This network consist of a 16-node fiber optic ring around key sites in Addis Ababa. Using combination of telephone carriers, microwave links and satellite links this network is connected with all the Wereda offices in Ethiopia. This network are designed to handle multimedia and data traffic. For data traffic this network will have a carrying capacity of approximately 100,000 Internet customers and provide for 2 000 dedicated lines by Asymmetrical Digital Subsciber Line (ADSL), Fixed Wireless Access (FWA) or optical fiber with metro Ethernet connection.

To further boost the development of ICT in Ethiopia support have come through a Technology, Entertainment and Design (TED) Prize. TED is an annual US event. This prize was awarded to Bono from the music band U2 in 2005. One of the three wishes to be awarded him was to connect every hospital, health clinic and school in Ethiopia to the Internet. Advanced Micro Devices (AMD) is one company that as stepped up to fulfill, at least parts, of this wish.

Ethiopia is currently not connected to the Internet backbone, but all international Internet traffic is routed via an US satellite ISP operator. By using a program called traceroute I have done a little research on how packets going into Ethiopia is routed. I found that IP packets from Norway to Ethiopia ( www.ethionet.et) is routed via Intelsat. Intelsat is an international satellite communication operator. The IP packages are routed to the US and from there to the UK where the package enters Intelsat’s network and is sent by satellite to Germany and from Germany to Ethiopia by satellite. The response time from Ethiopia is significant, between 600 and 700ms. I have tried to find the bandwidth of Ethiopia’s connection to the international Internet. The most resent data I could find is from 2002. Then the bandwidth was 10Mbps for incoming traffic and 4Mbps for outgoing, for the whole country.

Even if the internal network in Ethiopia have improved significantly over the last few years it would be of little help to Internet connectivity if the connection to the broader Internet is as low as 10Mbps. To give more bandwidth to the Internet a different solution than a satellite connection is needed. Currently there are plans to connect to a fiber optic line going through the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden, this line is called East African Submarine Cable System (EASSy). Ethiopia, however, is a land locked nation and have to make deals with it’s neighboring countries. Eritrea is not an option given the resent violent history and troublesome dealings with that country. According to the Ethiopian newspaper The Reporter the Ethiopian government have reached and understanding with Djibouti and Sudan, and the plan is to have a connection both through Djibouti and Port Sudan. When this have been realised Ethiopia have truly joined the international virtual community. Such progress, however, are only available to the elite in developing countries. When even using Internet Cafès is too expensive for the majority of the population, not to mention the knowledge level required to use computers, the benefit of Internet is inaccessible to most people.

The New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD)( http://www.nepad.org/) have a project called the E-school project. It was first announced in 2003 and aims at connecting schools across Africa to the NEPAD e-school network and the Internet. According to a new bulletin at nepads web site the project target is to connect all high schools within five years and all schools within ten years. Around 600 000 schools need to be connected to reach this target. This project have attracted support from heavy software and hardware giants like HP, Microsoft Corporation, satellite operator INMARSAT Limited, Oracle Corporation and Cisco Systems. This corporations are the private sector partners that lead the consortium for the NEPAD e-school demonstration program. The influence of such heavy industry partners will properly give proprietary software a dominating position in this e-school network. The e-school project will influence Ethiopia’s SchoolNet project.

The more practical side of this story is what I experienced while I was in Ethiopia. In Addis Ababa I saw many Internet Cafes and small software shops. There were even some small private computer schools. The network at AAU and everywhere else I was in Ethiopia, were slow and severely congested. At AAU the network was only usable in the evenings. In Mekelle the network was always slow and frequently unavailable at the Internet cafe we used. The service seemed more reliable when we connected from Tigray Health Bureau and from Mekelle university, but the connection was significantly slower than in Addis Ababa.

In Addis Ababa the network was more reliable, but was severely congested. At AAU the network was so congested that it was effectively useless in normal working hours. In the evenings the situation was better. After I came back from my first visit to Mekelle I moved from the university guest house to a guest house run by a Norwegian mission agency (Norsk Luthersk Misjonssamband (NLM)). There was one computer at NLM guest house connected to the Internet, this connection was faster than the one at AAU in normal working hours.

The AAU network had an extremely strict firewall for both inbound and outbound traffic. The only access to the Internet was through a http proxy, all other communication ports was closed. To get access to the http proxy you had to have a user name and password provided to you by AAU. The communication port for http is port 80, services using other ports was not available. I tried to use other services through the http proxy without avail. If this was not enough AAU also had a web filter filtering out “inappropriate” web pages. Some perfectly legitimate (no porn) web pages in Norwegian was blocked by this filter. I disdain porn so I wouldn’t mind actual porn being filtered, but it is better with a little porn getting through than legitimate pages getting filtered. At the NLM guest house I had no such problems. More concerning than the filtering of porn is filtering of web content critical of the Ethiopian government. The Ethiopian government is accused of filtering out critical weblogs at blogspot.com1.