Category: "ICT"

Ethiopia Puts Off Privatising ETC But Rolls Out Nationwide Fibre Network

September 12th, 2005


Sometimes dubbed the “North Korea” of regulatory change, Ethiopia stands out as the country resisting the tides of change that have begun to engulf the rest of the continent.

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Broadband in Ireland lags behind Ethiopia

September 8th, 2005

Political debate heats up in Ireland’s parliament over broadband provisioning.

The Irish Government’s failure to provide high-speed broadband access to the Internet has led to Ireland falling behind countries like Ethiopia in terms of broadband roll-out according to Ireland On-Line.

Labour Party spokesman on communications Tommy Broughan drew attention to the fact that Ireland had fallen behind most European countries and a number of African nations.

“Earlier this year New Scientist reported that Ethiopia has launched an ambitious plan to wire the whole country for broadband Internet within three years.

“By next November the government in Addis Ababa expects to have up to 500,000 broadband connections to homes and businesses – a greatly superior roll-out to Ireland’s” he said.

Broughan added that Ireland will fall out of the top 30 countries for broadband provisioning which could have dire economic consequences.

Ireland’s failure to implement a comprehensive broadband strategy could be disastrous for both inward investment and attracting foreign businesses stated Broughan.

“Nearly every target set by Government for broadband has not been met, as the vast majority of Irish Internet users are forced to use antiquated modes of dial-up technology,” Broughan reiterated in Ireland On-line.

South Africa faces similar struggles but government has woken up to the need to remedy this situation.

President Mbeki’s state of the nation address touched on the need to improve broadband services and a recent Department of Communication colloquium opened the forum to tackle telecommunication challenges facing South Africa.


Ireland Online


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Ethiopia to host int'l information technology forum

September 6th, 2005

Ethiopia to host int'l information technology forum

Ethiopia said Monday it has been elected to host the Third World Information Technology Forum, which is scheduled to be held on August 22-28, 2007.

According to a news release from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, an agreement enabling it to host the forum has recently been signed in South Africa between the Ethiopian government representatives and officials of the forum.

The ministry said Ethiopia is selected to organize the forum due to its efforts to reduce poverty, ensure good governance and its commitment to improve public service provision.

It also said information and communication technology-related programs and projects, which enable to design and implement multi- faceted development programs, helped the country to be selected to host the forum.

The Second World Information Technology Forum was held in 2005 in the Botswana capital of Gaborone, with nearly 900 senior government officials drawn from over 70 countries taking part in the meeting.

The forum aims at sharing experience on policy implementation with a view to supporting developing countries in their efforts to achieve the Millennium Development Goals.

The commitment of the Ethiopian government in giving due priority to information technology has been commended as compared to other African countries which are at the same level of development, the ministry said.

Ethiopia, one of the poorest nations on earth, will expand Internet coverage from a handful of users to the entire country in three years.

Currently there are just 30,000 Internet lines in a country of 71 million people, making it one of the lowest users of information technology in the world, according to a study by the World Bank. But within six months that figure will be expanded to 500,000 lines.

The Ethiopian government has begun laying 10,000 km of fiber optic cables and invested around 40 million US dollars in developing its Internet service.

Source: Xinhua

Ethiopia leaps into the information age

August 16th, 2005


Ethiopia leaps into the information age

Ethiopia leaps into the information age
By Holden Frith, Times Online
One of the world's poorest countries hopes that a broadband internet network will give it a badly needed break

Most Ethiopian high schools now have plasma-screen TVs

Good news often seems to be an endangered species in Africa, even if many parts of the continent are making quiet progress while others occupy the headlines with stories of conflict and disaster. Still, it is surprising to learn that one of its poorer countries is spending 10 per cent of its annual GDP on a broadband, satellite-based internet system.

The Ethiopian government faced some puzzlement four years ago when it embarked upon a plan to bring the worldwide web to every school and local government office, but ministers insist that this is the quickest, most cost-effective way of building a national infrastructure. "If I have to connect the most remote region by road, it will take a long time," says Ato Tefera Waluma, the minister of capacity building. "If you take in a satellite then it’s connected. It’s the easiest way to do it. We are connecting the citizen who is in the most remote place not only to his next village, but to the whole world."

The aim is to use the technology to overcome some of the geographical disadvantages faced by this vast country. The remoter regions are beyond the reach of existing road and telephone networks, and connecting every village with Tarmac and copper wires would cost far more than the high-tech alternative. Fibre-optic cables now link the main towns and form the backbone of a network that uses VSAT satellites to reach the more isolated villages, where the cost of building a physical connection would be prohibitive.

With the infrastructure in place, politicians, engineers and users now face the challenge of realising its potential. The network is intended to deliver high-quality education, agricultural training and, eventually, a telemedicine service, as well as to provide the foundation for an internet-based telephone system that could replace the antiquated equipment used in most of the country.

Meles Zenawi, the Ethiopian prime minister, acknowledges that many of his countrymen were initially unconvinced that so large a share of the country’s limited resources should be pumped into ICT, or information and communication technology. "The first mental block that we had to cross was the view that ICT is for the rich," he says, "but it became clear that the quality of education was likely to be substandard for a long period of time unless we could come up with a shortcut, and people seemed to suggest that ICT could provide that shortcut. Because we are poor, we can’t afford not to use ICT."

Using the broadband network, the government is mounting a two-pronged campaign to drive up educational standards, employing internet-based training to boost the calibre of teachers at the same time as delivering educational material direct to pupils via the web.

Most secondary schools have now received the huge plasma-screen televisions that will soon display internet-streamed MPEG 2 digital video, including instructional films and quizzes. In the meantime, the screens are used to show recorded lessons broadcast over the country’s TV network, but the internet-based system will allow teachers greater flexibility in the way they use their high-tech teaching materials. With TV broadcasts, everyone has to go at the same pre-determined speed, but streamed lessons can be paused or fast-forwarded, allowing the teacher to repeat information for struggling students or skip ahead for those who are doing well. It will also let teachers see the material in advance and plan lessons to make best use of it, instead of going into the broadcast blind.

"Because we are poor,we can't afford not to use technology" Meles Zenawi, Ethiopian prime minister

While Ethiopian schools await their e-lessons, Addis Ababa University is already making use of the internet to broaden the opportunities available to students. Apart from staff salaries, IT is the biggest single expense for the university, but its president, Andreas Esheté, is confident that the investment is worthwhile.

"The technology has enabled us to introduce new activities that would have been very difficult without it," he explains. "If a student wants to do a thesis on a subject for which we don’t have an expert, we get a person outside the university to supervise the thesis using the internet." Students in the computer department have also been able to work on joint projects with their counterparts at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which could not have happened in the pre-internet era.

Although some local businesses are making use of IT, the government remains the primary internet user in Ethiopia, and beyond the education sector the main customer is local government. Each of the 600 local offices and 11 regional centres is now connected by video conferencing equipment, which has replaced two-way military radios as the main form of communications in some areas, and in others has given villages their first link with the outside world.

For most of the time the network will facilitate the mundane but important business of efficient government, allowing the dispersal of advice, instructions and feedback without the need for long journeys on foot, but the links could also prove invaluable during emergencies. In the past, when food stocks began to run low in the more remote areas, news of looming famine and requests for help would travel from the villages at a walking pace. Now, each village is only an e-mail or phone call away.

The gap between the rich and the poor is not just money, it's know-how Genet Zewdie, Education minister

Amid all this optimism – and the tangible progress – there are obstacles still to overcome. The minister of capacity building, who has overall responsibility for the project, says that Ethiopia does not yet have the software, content or expertise to make the most of the hardware it has installed, and admits that the pace of implementation has not been as fast as he would have liked. More fundamentally, he acknowledges that many Ethiopians are illiterate (less than half can read and write), and few are familiar with telephones, let alone computers. Huge cultural and social changes will be needed if the population is to embrace IT in the manner that its government hopes.

In spite of these difficulties, the country’s politicians have won a great deal of praise for their commitment to the project. "Ethiopia is a model of how things should be done," says Anthony Vonsee, the vice-president in Africa of Cisco Systems, the main contractor involved in building the network. "Often there are a lot of fuzzy words, but here they’re being matched with action."

Mr Vonsee suggests that Ethiopia, along with other African countries, has the opportunity to leapfrog the technologies of the last century and progress directly from subsistence agriculture to the digital age. "Many countries are doing what the US did, what Europe did, and putting a lot of money into going from analogue to digital networks, then digital to IP [internet] networks. Why not jump that digital divide right away?"

The digital divide between Africa and the West remains vast, but it is narrowing. Few Ethiopians can expect to own their own computers in the foreseeable future, but with school and local government machines being opened up to the community at the end of the working day, there is the potential for technology to reach large numbers of people.

Genet Zewdie, the Ethiopian education minister, says this will have a profound social and economic effect on the country. "It will help us to eliminate poverty, because the gap between the rich and the poor is not just money, it’s the know-how," she says, adding that future generations of Ethiopians will not only use technology but help to create it too. Even so, can the internet really succeed where two decades of aid and collective hand-wringing have failed, and lift this stubbornly poor country out of poverty? "In the next 20 or 30 years we hope that we will be one of the middle-income countries," says Mrs Zewdie. "It will be done."

Times of London


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Ethiopia's digital dream

August 3rd, 2005


Ethiopia's digital dream
The Guardian

Thursday August 4, 2005
The Guardian

Ethiopian government offices are austere affairs. They even lack the typical African decoration of the president's portrait on the wall. None of the furniture would fetch 10p in a British junk shop.
One detail disturbs this pattern - a large flat-screen plasma monitor, plugged into a rack of digital routers, appears to have been teleported from another universe.

The kit is here to support the world's most unexpected e-government programme: Ethiopia, one of Africa's poorest countries, is spending one tenth of its GDP every year on IT. Over the next five years, the government plans to invest more than $100m (£56m) in public sector computers. It aims to equip hundreds of government offices and schools with broadband internet connections. And by 2007, according to the plan, none of Ethiopia's 74 million people will live more than a few kilometres from a broadband access point. The nucleus of this network, 4,000km of optical fibre, has already been laid and will be fully commissioned later this year.

Ethiopia's IT programme is an extreme example of the aspiration of several African countries to leap out of their quagmire of decaying public services with the help of IT. The dream is to skip an entire generation of infrastructure by going directly to internet technology.

Meles Zenawi, the Ethiopian prime minister, talks of IT providing a short cut to development. "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 telemedicine."

Telecommunication of any kind is a novelty in Ethiopia. In the 1980s, when I first visited the country to report the famine, making a phone call outside the capital meant picking up the receiver and waiting for an operator to set up a crackly radio link. Two decades on, only 1.2% of the population have a telephone. Internet usage is low even by African standards.

Meles deals briskly with talk that a country where female life expectancy is 50 and famine still threatens millions should have different priorities. IT is no luxury, he says, but rather a "crucial weapon to fight poverty".

He says the national digital network underpins two specific "pro-poor" projects, to connect schools and local government offices.

Schoolnet is an attempt to overcome Ethiopia's desperate shortage of teachers, especially in remote areas. Schools already receive video lessons broadcast for eight hours a day by satellite TV. The syllabus, based on South African material, is being digitised for transmission over the internet so that teachers at the receiving end can prepare beforehand and control the pace of lessons (so long as their electricity supply is working). Demissew Bekele, head of the government's educational media agency, says this control is essential for children moving from primary to secondary school, where the medium of instruction is English.

The education minister, Genet Zewdie, says there is no alternative to e-learning. "IT is expensive, but ignorance is more expensive."

Woredanet is the country's first step in e-government. For the first time the network connects all 600 of Ethiopia's local councils (woredas) to 11 regional capitals through internet telephone and video-conferencing. Half the links are by cable, and half by satellite. The broadband infrastructure also offers the chance for small towns to install their first payphone.

Previously, official reports would take months to reach the capital. Often early warning signs of famine, such as falling livestock prices, would not get through until a crisis had developed. Woredanet has not yet been tested in such circumstances, however it was mobilised in earnest earlier this year to train officials running the May general election - by far the most open in Ethiopia's long history.

Efficient communications between tiers of government are part of a programme of administrative reform that speaks a language strikingly similar to Tony Blair's vision of citizen-centric e-government.

"The whole purpose is to change the mindset of the civil service," says the man in charge, Tefera Waluwa, minister for capacity building. He talks of "transparency and accountability, fairness, efficiency and effectiveness" enabled by the technology.

Tefera says his reforms have already reduced the time taken to issue a foreign investment licence from 225 days to two hours. His target is one hour. It was done by looking at all the procedures and asking why they were necessary. Unlike his British counterparts, however, Tefera is not seeking to re-engineer public employees out of their jobs. "The government has a shortage of educated people. When someone is redundant in one office, they will be required in another place."

Another innovation in the programme is an information desk in every government agency. Tefera shows off an official name badge on his lapel, which he says is compulsory issue to all his civil servants.

Ministers say that, eventually, the government's networks will become community internet facilities. Today, widespread internet use is a distant dream. Even by the standards of the world's least wired continent, Ethiopian internet usage is low: less than 0.1% of the population goes online. According to Internet World Stats, this places it in the same league as Niger and the Democratic Republic of Congo and way behind Kenya (1.2%), let alone South Africa (7.3%). Britain's score is 59%.

Ethiopia's digital infrastructure is being built by the national telecom operator, the publicly-owned Ethiopian Telecommunications Corporation. Its main contractors are Cisco Systems (whose guest I was) and Business Connexion, a South African-based IT services firm. The government subsidises the project with a tax break and by underwriting bonds. "We do not spend a cent of the budget per se," says Meles.

In fact, Meles says that money is by no means his main problem. "There are two things we need. One is training and manpower. So whatever technical assistance the west can give with high quality internet technology is the most important thing."

The second is hardware. "I know that people throw away computers that are two or three years old," says Meles. "We could do with five, six, seven-year-old computers that work."

Ethiopia is already receiving used hardware from a Brussels-based organisation Close the Gap. It supplies renovated corporate PCs, sorted in standard packages and with new Windows licences for between €45 and €90 per machine.

One consequence of Ethiopia's knowledge gap is reliance on Windows and other proprietary software. Meles, a former guerilla leader who overthrew the dictator Mengistu in 1991, is at ease discussing the question of open source software.

"Our position is determined by the fact that proprietary suppliers have the money to provide initial support," he says. "To implement open source needs a minimum of training and at the moment we don't have that. In five or 10 years time, we will be in a position to choose."

Whether the dream of IT helping African countries fast-track to development will become reality is impossible to predict. The worry must be that national broadband infrastructures will repeat the story of the 1960s and 1970s, in which ambitious industrial and agricultural projects proved unsustainable after lining the pockets of the African elite.

There are some signs that the new wave will be different. One is the existence of grass-roots demand for IT throughout Africa. In many big cities, cellphone networks and cybercafes have bypassed incompetent and corrupt official analogue channels of communication. In Ethiopia, mobile phones outnumber fixed lines. The phenomenon turns on its head the whole concept of "appropriate technology".

African leaders enjoy demonstrating that the latest digital router can be as appropriate to a developing country as a bullock cart or an efficient wood-burning stove. Ethiopians in particular detest the West's automatic association of their ancient country with famine and charity.

"We're not waiting for handouts," assures Genet, "but we do need partnerships."

In Ethiopia's case, it is especially hard to be objective. The country's distinctive culture and the scale of its problems make any visit an intense experience, especially for anyone who saw something of the bad years. Merely sitting in a government office brings back vivid memories of hearing officials reciting district-by-district statistics of families "affected" and "seriously affected" by famine.

The capital, Addis Ababa, looks so changed that it is easy to fall into the trap of over-optimism about an IT-enabled future. But Ethiopia is not Addis Ababa. So long as the vast majority of its people are subsistence farmers scraping a living from a hostile environment, IT can only be part of a bigger package of slow and painful reform.

That doesn't mean it is not a good investment. In any case, Ethiopians don't regard themselves as second-class human beings: no outsider is going to persuade them to have second-class ambitions.

The Guardian


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Grade 6 class at the School of Tomorrow in Addis Ababa. Photo Credit WorldVision

Note: The above picture is not part of The Guardian article.