Ethiopia stuck in telecoms stone-age.


Ethiopia has only 150,000 telephone lines for a population of 56 million; and only 1,300 internet subscribers. In telecommunication terms, this is a disaster. Privatisation could be a solution but it seems the government is determined to retain control over information.

In 1897, the then ruler of Ethiopia, King Menelik, called up Ras Mekonnen, the father of the late Emperor Haile Selassie, from Addis Ababa to Harar -- 600 km apart -- for a chat on the telephone.

A sign of great things to come -- telecommunications wise -- one would think. But 100 years on, Ethiopia is home to only 150,000 telephone sets serving a population of 56m -- a low "teledensity" of one for every 373 people. Like so many other developing countries, Ethiopia has been left struggling to catch up with the Information Age.

In all of Ethiopia, there are just 1,300 internet subscribers. Every one of them is based in the capital Addis Ababa, and even these are mostly embassies and businesses. Government institutions rank low in terms of internet use. As to other important groups, such as university teachers, "it is out of the question," says the country's telecommunications minister, Abdul Mejid Hussein. "They cannot afford it."

In most countries of course, teachers, researchers and academics have been among the first users of the internet. But in Ethiopia, the internet is a luxury. A university lecturer earns the equivalent of $150 a month. To get hooked on to the information superhighway, he or she would have to shell out $95, plus a minimum service charge of $300 a year. For purely economic reasons (there are others, like unfamiliarity with computers, which can lead to technophobia), the internet's supposed development opportunities are still a distant dream, as is the case in other poor countries.

Although Mr Hussein acknowledges the potential advantages of the internet in areas such as education, health, rural development, trade and tourism, he says: "the internet is not our priority in the communication service. We are giving priority to providing telephone lines to our people." There are plans to introduce 400,000-500,000 telephone lines over the next four years. But that target appears to be over ambitious, and ignoring the internet will not necessarily help reaching it.

In all of Africa, all but four countries are connected to the internet and around 700,000 people, about 0.1% of the population, now use basic internet services. This alone is six times as many...

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