Eritrea - four ISPs licensed but not yet operational

28 July 2000

Top Story

In this issue, News Update returns to the "frontiers" of internet development in Africa: Eritrea. This small country has granted four ISP licences and is readying itself for full internet connectivity.

Tewelde Stephanos describes the current e-mail services operated and the issues faced by those creating connectivity in Eritrea. In addition, there is a news round-up with developments from Senegal, Cote D'Ivoire and Zimbabwe.

Eritrea is a young nation in the north-east of Africa, which was liberated from Ethiopia in 1991. It became a sovereign UN nation after conducting a successful referendum in 1993. The next five years were years of peace and rigorous development programs. Then war broke out again with Ethiopia in May 1998. In September 2000, the deployment of UN troops to enforce a peace agreement started and is giving people renewed hope that durable peace will prevail.

Eritrea does not have full Internet connectivity yet, but it has had e-mail service since 1996. The first efforts towards e-mail connectivity started at the University of Asmara when Dr. Robert Van Buskirk was a physics professor there. Dr. Van Buskirk along with Mr. Craig Harmer, a friend in California, formed Eritrea Technical Exchange (ETE), a non-profit organization whose primary objectives are to help transfer appropriate and efficient technologies to Eritrea.

E-mail support for UUCP dialup, efficient cooking stoves, fully Unicode compliant software to computerize Eritrean languages are major projects that ETE is currently involved in. To minimize the high cost of international telephone calls, e-mail messages are batched and compressed before a UUCP connection is made between the servers in Eritrea and California. Since 1996, two companies, TFanus Enterprises and Ewan Technology Solutions have been providing email services to the Eritrean market. The Department of Energy also has a similar set-up to provide services to its personnel.

It is estimated that TFanus and Ewan jointly serve around 1,200 to 1,700 email users. The cost for email service started at about US$25 per megabyte. It is currently around $12-17 US per megabyte.

In preparation for full Internet connectivity, the Eritrean Ministry of Transport and Communications has issued four ISP licenses. Two of these have been awarded to TFanus and Ewan, the current email service providers. The new entrants are Computer Technology Services (CTS), a private company, and the government owned Telecommunications Services of Eritrea (TSE). TSE is the only entity allowed to provide international IP connectivity. ISPs will pay a monthly fee of US$ 2000.00 to TSE for a bandwidth of 128K, which is considered to be reasonable by African standards.

As in many other African countries, Eritrea's Internet project is funded by USAID under the Leland Initiative. Even though discussions started years back, the project's schedule has been slipping mainly due to the latest Ethio-Eritrean war. It is expected that TSE's gateway equipment with its wireless connections to the ISP sites will be operational by the end of this year. Lyman Bros. of the US is responsible for the communications link and Morocco's MTDS for training and DNS server configurations.

With a population of 3 million, high illiteracy and low per capita income levels, the Eritrean Internet market may initially be too small for four ISPs to operate profitably. There is also some concern about TSE's role as owner of the international gateway and as a competitor in the small ISP market. However, the Ministry of Transport and Communications under the Department of Communications is taking a regulatory role to ensure that an environment of fair competition is maintained. Under the regulations, TSE is expected to separate its PTT and ISP businesses and make them subject to independent audits.

Although some of the ISPs are relatively well funded to afford "ISP in a rack" type of equipment, TFanus is a build-as-you-go enterprise whose objectives are to install reliable and efficient Internet infrastructure in a cost effective manner. Consistent with those objectives, TFanus has a relationship with Network Startup Resource Center (NSRC) where the University of Oregon based NSRC has already supplied routers, terminal servers, switches, hubs, ethernet cables and books to TFanus. NSRC has no financial stake in TFanus and its involvement is strictly based on NSRC's objectives to empower small private ISPs by providing them much needed equipment and training. Over the last 12 years, NSRC has done a lot of useful work in Africa and other countries around the world to expand Internet access to academics and students.

In line with that philosophy, NSRC has shown strong willingness to provide similar assistance to the Department of Computer Science at the University of Asmara. Although in the initial stages at the moment, NSRC has already donated books, a hub and network cables to the Department and is keenly interested to provide further support in a manner that is consistent with its practices in other universities and institutions.

Another concern regarding the effectiveness of the Internet in Eritrea, which is also true for many developing countries, is that with high illiteracy rates and low personal income levels, access will be initially limited to a small segment of the population leaving out the vast majority, especially students. Internet ready computers in schools, community centers, public libraries, cyber cafes and other public facilities can go a long way in meeting the needs of big audiences who otherwise would not have access to the Internet. It is very likely that Eritrea can directly use best practices of other developing countries on how they are addressing these important issues.

If anyone has good ideas based on experience on how to creatively expand the Internet to those who don't normally have the means, please share those ideas with tewelde@gemel.com.er.

Tewelde Stephanos (tewelde@gemel.com.er), TFanus Enterprises, P.O.Box 724 Asmara, Eritrea