Telecommunications Overview

The
mobile revolution has been slower to take off in Ethiopia than in many other
developing countries.

 

Mobile
network coverage remains restricted to the main towns and their immediate
surroundings.

 

But
in rural areas – where 80% of the population live - few people own a mobile handset
or are able to receive a network signal.

 

The
state telecoms company Ethio Telecom
maintains a monopoly of both mobile and fixed line services.

 

The
company said in September 2011 that it had 10.5 million mobile subscribers.

 

Since
Ethiopia has a population of about 83 million, that would give a mobile
penetration rate of just 13%.

 

BuddeCom,
an Australia-based telecoms research company, estimated mobile penetration in
Ethiopia in 2011 at just half that level – 6.2%.

 

Whatever
the true figure, Ethiopia is still far behind neighbouring Kenya in terms of
mobile telephone development.

 

In
Kenya, four rival private sector telecom operators vie for business and the
mobile penetration rate had risen to 63% by the end of 2010. In Kenya people
own mobile handsets in the most remote rural communities and use them
regularly.

 

Ethiopia
is something of a laggard in telecoms development.

 

In
2010, the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) ranked Ethiopia 154 out
of 159 countries surveyed in terms of access to information and communication
technology (ICT).

 

Ethio
Telecom said that in June 2011 it was operating 854,000 landlines- roughly one
line per 100 people in the country.

 

However,
the country’s telecoms sector is growing very fast. Ethio Telecom reported a
46% increase in subscriber numbers during the 12 months to June 2011.

 

A
massive increase in mobile phone subscriptions accounted for most of this
growth.

 

Call
charges are cheap. There is a standard tariff of 0.3 birr (two US cents) per
minute to all Ethiopian mobiles and landlines.

 

In
most countries competition between rival mobile operators has driven subscriber
numbers and network coverage up and call charges down.

 

The
Ethiopian government has not so far announced any plans to liberalise the
telecommunications sector.

 

However, in December 2010, it signed a two-year deal to
outsource the management of Ethio Telecom to France Telecom in a bid to improve
its network coverage and level of service.

 

This
deal has led to an influx of French managers and technical advisors.

 

Ethio
Telecom insiders say that in the past investments to expand network coverage
did not always focus on areas with a high population density and revenue
potential and this restricted traffic and revenue growth.

 

Government
oversight of the telecoms networks is strong.

 

Purchasers
of new mobile phone SIM cards are required to show proof of identity and
register the corresponding phone line in their own name.

 

Cyber
cafes also keep a register of their customers.

 

Many
Ethiopians assume that government security agencies routinely monitor telephone
calls and email traffic.

 

Internet
users say many websites run from abroad that are linked to opposition groups
within Ethiopia or which are critical of the government have been blocked by
the authorities.

 

In
2005, the government blocked the SMS text messaging service of EthioTelecom,
saying it has been misused by the political opposition during hotly contested
elections that year.

 

SMS
messaging remained suspended for two years. It was only restored in 2007.

 

Some
companies now use SMS messages to distribute advertisements, but mass SMS
messages sent in Amharic only have a
limited impact.

 

Very
few handsets are enabled to display the Amharic alphabet.

 

Organizations
seeking to use software-based programs to distribute bulk SMS messages to large
groups of people, such as Frontline SMS may be required to obtain prior
authorisation for such activities from the government.

 

Internet
usage in Ethiopia is very low and restricted to the main towns.

 

The
ITU estimated that in 2010 less than one percent of Ethiopia’s population had
access to the internet.

 

According to the CIA World Factbook, there were only
447,000 internet users in Ethiopia in 2009.

 

However, the popularity of the internet and social
networking is growing fast.

 

According to the website www.socialbakers.com, which measures
internet usage, there were nearly 370,000 Facebook users in Ethiopia in
September 2011. Of these, 110,000 had
signed up over the previous six months.

 

Ethio Telecom is the sole provider of internet access
in Ethiopia.

 

Home or mobile internet access is beyond the means of
most Ethiopians.

 

Most surfers go online at their place of work or at
internet cafes. In Addis Ababa, some of the educated elite take advantage
mobile internet access.

 

In
September 2011, Ethio Telecom charged about 1,100 birr (US$65) per month for a
2 mbps ADSL line with a 6 gigabyte data-transfer limit.

 

All
the same, Ethio Telecom is planning to expand its ADSL network and mobile-data
network.

 

The
company has already reduced its internet tariffs and the cost of internet access
may fall further as subscriber numbers increase.

 

Many
of the most popular internet services, such as Google searches, internet-based
email, Facebook and Twitter, can be easily accessed on rudimentary smart phones
that access the mobile-data network.

 

Some
affluent Ethiopians use USB plug in modems to access the Internet via their
laptop computers.

 

Access
to websites that are sympathetic to the political opposition, or deemed hostile
to the government, may be blocked from inside Ethiopia.

 

Opponents of Ethiopia’s current political
regime have increasingly used online media to criticize the government, and the
country has responded by implementing a filtering regime that blocks access to
popular blogs and the Web sites of many news organizations, dissident political
parties, and human rights groups
”, the  Canada-based
OpenNet Initiative said in a 2009 report
.

 

However, filtering is not
comprehensive, and much of the media content that the government is attempting
to censor can be found on sites that are not banned
”, it added.