ERITREA - AFRICA’S SLOWEST INTERNET ADAPTOR STARTS TO MAKE PROGRESS
14 December 2001
Although slow to adopt the internet, Eritrea is now finding that initial demand for connectivity exceeds gateway capacity. As the technology resource person for a USAID project this year Carole Roberts describes recent developments and the future plans to meet the new demand.
As the last African country to get connected to the internet, Eritrea achieved full Internet connectivity last November 2000 with the launch of the USAID Leland Internet gateway (http://www.usaid.gov/leland/eriindex.htm). Overall, the growth and impact of connectivity in Eritrea has continued into 2001, but the unanticipated initial demand for connectivity exceeded gateway capacity. USAID responded with a design for a system upgrade. Details are still being worked out about the rollout timeline and funding for the upgrade. In any case, as of November 2001, sources confirmed that only the capital city, Asmara, is connected to the internet. Customers outside of Asmara must make toll calls to connect to the internet, increasing their connectivity costs.
Sources suggest that by end of 2001 the Eritrean Ministry of Transport and Communications (MTC) which is in charge of the rollout, has plans to connect the major port city of Massawa. The other cities included in the original rollout plan &SHY; Dekamhare, Keren, Massawa, and Mendefera and later Assab and Berentu - were to be connected by end of FY 2000, so will be scheduled in FY2002 circumstances permitting.
The slippage of this deadline has been affected by a number of delays including the need for the gateway redesign, and other civil issues taking precedence since May 2001. Some of these issues, including the impact of the recent war between Eritrea and Ethiopia, and the reality that demobilization has been slower getting under way than anticipated, have had major impacts on meeting many IT project deadlines and accomplishing IT productivity goals. For example, ISPs state that they often find it difficult to provide technical support, offer training, and expand services because of shortages of trained staff.
Control of the gateway remains with the state-run TSE (Telecommunication Services of Eritrea). In the last year, four licensed ISPs are now operational. The three private ISPs &SHY; Ewan, CTS, and Tfanus &SHY; share gateway connectivity with the TSE operated ISP &SHY; TSE-I-Net. ISPs at this time are not allowed to establish their own IP connection. Some outside agencies such as those of Denmark and others have moved to establish independent IP connectivity. One concern is that if this trend continues, there will be insufficient customers to allow the sector to become financially viable.
Email services began last year for about 1200 users, and the numbers have been steadily growing. ISPs are reluctant to discuss customer-base numbers, because of significant competition. This makes it difficult to estimate the current numbers and overall growth in the total customer base. However, one indication is the steady use of and growth in Internet cafes. Up until May 2001, there were three Internet cafes in Asmara. Since then, at least two more cafes have opened in Asmara.
The main campus of the University of Asmara was connected to the internet in November 2001. In anticipation of this, last year the University applied for an ISP license with plans to open an internet café on campus. Over the last year, some wiring infrastructure was installed on the main campus, classes and labs were held in the Computer Science Department, and email use was encouraged in anticipation of connectivity this year. Also, earlier this year, a female student group, members of the Student Union, began planning a small on-campus facility for computer training for use by their group.
Another promising technology development was the May 26, 2001 launch of Ericel, the Eritrean mobile telephone service. Ericel planned a two-month trial period before offering full service in August, but that goal has slipped. To date, services are not being offered to the public because sources say the billing service is not yet in place. Public service will probably be offered some time in January 2001. More background information about Ericel can be found in BalancingAct Issue 62.
Tfanus ISP and its associate, Eritrea Technical Exchange, have been leading the way with software development that aids the use of Ge¹ez script and the special coding needed for email and Internet. The most important element of their research is the understanding of how to ensure that African languages are part of Internet development, and to assure worldwide access to Internet resources. (More information about this topic is available at both www.tfanus.com.er and www.punchdown.org/rvb/email/UniGeez.html).
The economic promise of the internet in Eritrea is demonstrated by the Seawater Farms project. This integrated farm is located on the Red Sea coast on a stretch of barren desert just north of the Eritrean port of Massawa. With some initial government support, the project has had significant success in both producing products and attracting project partners that have contributed all types of technical expertise. Products produced by the project include shrimp, fish (tilapia), salicornia (sea asparagus), and mangrove plantations supporting wetlands development. The project advertises these products on the internet, in collaboration with its US partner, Seaphire (www.seawaterfarms.com). Contact them at: email@example.com
There is an overwhelming need to address education and training needs. The Ministry of Transport and Communications has led in planning and successfully managing many projects in IT rollout in the country, including a vision for rural telecenters and the latest mobile phone project. With a new Minister recently in place, sources say that MTC is considering the issue of training needs, along with staff training and possibly even a training center as part of the discussion of a five-year sector plan. The MTC has also had under discussion for the past year, along with University and others, the start-up of a CISCO Academy project, as well as acquiring other training resources.
The Ewan ISP management is considering plans for a major training facility to meet the needs of businesses and of those demobilized. Resources estimate that demobilization could eventually produce something approaching 250,000 people for integration back into society and the economy. Both Tfanus and CTS ISPs include training as part of regular activities at their respective Internet cafes. In particular, Tfanus is attempting to improve technology literacy rates by supporting public and private off-site IT training activities.
The author Carole Roberts is a consultant with Learning, Technology and Development. She can be contacted at: Carole_Roberts@faludi.com