Ethiopian government comments on the lack of reliable internet access
By now, the lack of reliable internet in Ethiopia is well-known. Of a nation of nearly 100 million people (second in Africa only to Nigeria), an estimated 1-2 percent of the population has an internet subscription (more on this later). The state maintains a near-stranglehold over the telecoms industry (mainly since it generates such a large amount of revenue for other infrastructure projects). Based on experiences of other African nations who have opened up their telecoms markets, however, privatization will produce even more money for the national economy. Greater competition will, in turn, allow for a higher level of knowledge sharing and job opportunities.
Poor internet access is one issue, but true freedom of the press is another story in itself. Journalists lack protection and a couple are arrested every year. Pending legislation has threatened to inhibit the availability of online information for over a year. A draft proclamation is designed to enable the Information Network Security Agency to have a wide range of control over the country’s information networks. On top of this, when internet access is available, many sites are blocked (including URL shorteners). So, even if Ethiopian internet access were to become completely reliable, users would not be able to access all types of content.
Recently, in a rare moment, the Ethiopian government was publicly presented with an ITU report that ranked the nation 151st out of 157 countries in terms of ICT development. Needless to say, the poor performance of Ethiopia’s ICT and broadband industries did not sit will with leaders. Getachew Negash, State Minister for Communication & Information Technology (MoCIT), declined to make a comment. Debretsion Gebremichael, Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Communication & Information Technology did, however, by saying how rankings were based on individual subscriptions rather than the number of those who actually use the internet. This is an interesting point, and indeed, more Africans access the internet than statistics based on Western subscription norms would suggest. Sharing of phones, multiple SIM ownership, pre-paid airtime, and public access are common in Africa but not necessarily in other parts of the world. Still, Ethiopia’s ICT stats are relative with other African nations and there is still a problem when the nation ranks poorly among its peers. Which brings us to the government’s more detailed response, as detailed to Jacey Fortin of International Business Times.
Instead of accepting the low ranking and stating that changes are underway, the government blames the lack of reliable internet on technical issues, including the lack of bandwidth to meet demand (a deal with Huawei and ZTE should help address part of this issue). Also cited is how Ethiopia, as heavily rural nation, must lay more cable than other African countries. To-date, this has reputedly meant slower speeds as infrastructure first gets put in place everywhere. In other words, Ethio Telecom has reportedly focused on connecting the entire country instead of building a strong infrastructure core in Addis. The Ethiopian government frequently mentions this emphasis on rural areas, citing SchoolNet, WoredaNet, and AgriNet. These programs respectively bring ICT services to schools, local governments, and farmers (located in most of the country, according to the Minister of ICT). No mention of Ethiopia’s landlocked location means it has to work harder to secure cross-border fibre connectivity to international bandwidth.
Amid poor connectivity, there still is ICT innovation in Addis. The university-based tech hub iceaddis is a beacon of hope. Here, 500+ budding entrepreneurs can gather to share and implement ideas that could be focused on anything from education to business to green tech. Challenges in securing adequate financial for new businesses along with poor connectivity hinder the success of iceaddis. For one, the space can no longer guarantee reliable internet access to its community. Such a reality would be embarrassing in neighboring countries (think Kenya) but it is all too familiar in Ethiopia.