Freedom House Reports on Ethiopia’s Telecom pensetration

By IndepthAfrica
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Oct 4th, 2013
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Freedom House

Ethiopia has one of the lowest rates of internet and mobile telephone penetration in the world, as meager infrastructure, a government monopoly over the telecom sector, and obstructive telecom policies have notably hindered the growth of information and communication technologies (ICTs) in the country. Despite low access, the government maintains a strict system of controls over digital media, making Ethiopia the only country in Sub-Saharan Africa to implement nationwide internet filtering. Such a system is made possible by the state’s monopoly over the country’s only telecom company, Ethio Telecom, which returned to government control after a two-year management contract with France Telecom expired in December 2012. In addition, the government’s implementation of deep-packet inspection technology for censorship was indicated when the Tor network, which helps people communicate anonymously online, was blocked in mid-2012.

Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, who ruled Ethiopia for over 20 years, died in August 2012 while seeking treatment for an undisclosed illness. Before his death was officially confirmed on August 20th, widespread media speculation about Zenawi’s whereabouts and the state of his health prompted the authorities to intensify its censorship of online content. A series of Muslim protests against religious discrimination in July 2012 also sparked increased efforts to control ICTs, with social media pages and news websites disseminating information about the demonstrations targeted for blocking. Moreover, internet and text messaging speeds were reported to be extremely slow, leading to unconfirmed suspicions that the authorities had deliberately obstructed telecom services as part of a wider crackdown on the Ethiopian Muslim press for its coverage of the demonstrations.

In 2012, legal restrictions on the use and provision of ICTs increased with the enactment of the Telecom Fraud Offences law in September, which toughened a ban on certain advanced internet applications and worryingly extended the 2009 Anti-Terrorism Proclamation and 2004 Criminal Code to electronic communications. Furthermore, the government’s ability to monitor online activity and intercept digital communications became more sophisticated with assistance from the Chinese government, while the commercial spyware toolkit FinFisher was discovered in Ethiopia in August 2012.

Repression against bloggers, internet users and mobile phone users continued during the coverage period of this report, with at least two prosecutions reported. After a long trial and months of international advocacy on behalf of the prominent dissident blogger, Eskinder Nega, who was charged with supporting a terrorist group, Nega was found guilty in July 2012 and sentenced to 18 years in prison.

Obstacles to Access:

In 2012, access to ICTs in Ethiopia remained extremely limited and hampered by slow speeds and the state’s tight grip on the telecom sector. Government investments in expanding access to remote areas of the country were found to be associated with political motives.

Internet and mobile phone services were introduced in Ethiopia in 1997 and 1999, respectively.In recent years, the government attempted to increase access through investments in fiber-optic cables, satellite links, and mobile broadband services, investing approximately 10 percent of the country’s gross domestic product in the telecom sector over the past decade.

Nevertheless, Ethiopia’s telecommunications infrastructure is among the least developed in Africa and is almost entirely absent from rural areas, where about 85 percent of the population resides. As of the end of 2012, internet penetration stood at just 1.5 percent, up slightly from 1.1 percent in 2011, according to the International Telecommunications Union (ITU).

Nevertheless, the number of fixed broadband subscriptions increased dramatically from 4,600 subscriptions in 2011 to nearly 38,000 subscriptions in 2012, as reported by the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology, though such subscriptions still only represent a penetration rate of just 0.4 percent.

Mobile phone penetration in 2012 was higher at roughly 24 percent with a little over 20.5 million subscriptions, up from a 17 percent penetration rate in 2011. Meanwhile, the use of internet-enabled mobile devices is increasing, particularly in semi-urban areas. While all of the above reflect very slight improvements over 2011, such penetration rates represent extremely limited access to ICTs by global standards, and an ICT sector that remains far behind the rest of the world.

Furthermore, an adult literacy rate of 30 percent means that the majority of Ethiopians would be unable to take full advantage of online resources even if they had access to the technology.[11] Radio remains the principal mass medium through which most Ethiopians stay informed.

The combined cost of purchasing a computer, initiating an internet connection, and usage charges makes internet access beyond the reach of most Ethiopians. According to a study by the ITU, Ethiopia’s broadband internet connections are among the most expensive in the world when compared with monthly income, second only to the Central African Republic. Prices are set by the state-controlled Ethio Telecom and kept artificially high, though the telecom introduced a new tariff effective on January 1, 2013 that offers a discount for mobile- and fixed-line international calls in a move to generate more revenue. Other price packages dating from 2011 are still current. These reduced subscription charges from $80 to $13 and monthly fees from over $200 for unlimited usage to $17-41 for 1-4 GB of use. For comparison, the annual gross national income per capita at purchasing power parity was $92.50 per month as of the data available during the coverage period. While these tariffs have rendered the service slightly more affordable—though still relatively expensive—for individual users, cybercafe owners have complained that the lack of an unlimited usage option could hurt the financial viability of their business.

The majority of internet users rely on cybercafes to access the web, and the number of cybercafes has grown in recent years, especially in large cities, after a brief period in 2001–02 during which the government declared them illegal and forced some to shut down. Since July 2002, new cybercafes have been required to register for licenses through the Ethiopian Telecommunications Agency (ETA). Nevertheless, connections are often slow and unreliable. A 2010 study commissioned by Manchester University’s School of Education found that accessing an online e-mail account and opening one message took six minutes in a typical cybercafé in the capital, Addis Ababa, with a broadband connection, and as of 2013, such slow speeds are still standard. Independent sources have noted that uploading an attachment to an e-mail can take more than 10 minutes. Meanwhile, internet access via mobile phones is also beset by slow connection speeds. According to a 2012 report by the Internet Society, telecom policy issues and poor connectivity are largely to blame for the country’s low internet speeds.

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