The future of the Ethiopian communication and economic landscape looks radically different this week following the official launch of a multi-million dollar technology infrastructure by the country’s incumbent telco operator, Ethiopian Telecommunications Corporation (ETC).

The infrastructure - based on technology from Internet networking giant, Cisco Systems ­ is designed to transform the level and quality of mobile, fixed line and data services that ETC can offer to public and corporate customers. It also supports the Ethiopian government’s initiative to build nationwide networks that link government, educational institutions and agricultural research centres.

"While mineral and energy resources abound in Ethiopia, our economy is based primarily on agriculture. This contributes half the GDP and 90% of our export earnings," explains Ato Asfaw Haile Mariam, the deputy GM of IT and data services at ETC.

"However, while this is important, the government recognises that we need alternative long-term growth strategies to create a knowledge-based economy. That is why we are embracing the latest information and communication technology to enhance the education, agriculture and healthcare sectors and improve government’s ability to deliver high-quality public services." The project began when the government, through its Ministry of Capacity Building (MoCB), enlisted ETC’s services early last year. The telco was tasked with creating a core broadband network that could route voice, video and data traffic around the capital, Addis Ababa, and out to the country’s less-developed and remote rural areas.

"ETC awarded the tender for this infrastructure to Cisco Systems and its pan-African network and systems integrator partner, Business Connexion. Together, the companies designed a Internet Protocol (IP) network with a high speed optical base layer and a switched multimedia upper layer," explains Shahab Meshki, the regional sales manager for East Africa at Cisco. A fibre optic ring based on the Cisco ONS platform has been built around Addis Ababa. A combination of high speed fixed and microwave links extends this network to other parts of the country ­ sometimes covering distances as far as 700kms.

Switches that handle mobile and fixed line voice traffic are attached at the base layer. Multimedia switches are then attached to the network, allowing ETC to handle various kinds of data.

Another deployment has also taken place: VSAT (very small aperture terminal) satellite network that provides connectivity to the most remote areas of the country. This interfaces with the Cisco core network through a high speed microwave link between the earth station in the hinterland and ETC’s hub in the capital.

While these projects were rolling out, the MoCB also issued a tender for three other independent networks, each designed to capitalise on the bandwidth and quality of service provided by ETC’s new infrastructure. Cisco and Business Connexion were appointed once again.

The first project is ‘Woredanet’ ­ a network that will link almost 600 local (‘woreda’) and 11 regional government offices around the country with each other and, in turn, with the Federal government headquarters in Addis. The project will provide these offices with video conferencing, email, Internet access and file sharing capabilities ­ the foundation for e-government.

The second is ‘Schoolnet’ ­ a nationwide network that will provide over 450 secondary education institutions around the country with access to general ICT, email and the Internet. It will also allow them to receive broadcast TV-based educational content from media agencies ­ the foundation for e-learning.

The third is ‘Agrinet’ ­ a network that will link more than 30 research and operational agricultural centres together to stimulate the growth of this cornerstone of the economy. A fourth, ‘Healthnet’, was also mooted to connect all major referral hospitals around Ethiopia and form the basis for a nationwide telemedicine infrastructure.

"Today, we see the successful completion of the core ETC broadband network. Schoolnet is practically up and running ­ schools across the country are already receiving educational TV broadcasts from the Educational Media Agency using the terrestrial and VSAT networks," explains Peter Retief, the operations executive for Africa at Business Connexion.

"Educational content is being broadcast to large flat-panel screens at those schools and the number coming online is increasing consistently. The second phase of the project ­ that which provides the schools with PCs, Internet access, local area networks and other technology ­ is currently being investigated. Woredanet is also almost complete ­ quality testing is underway at present."

Looking to the future, Asfaw says that in addition to the vast social development opportunities presented by the MoCB initiatives, there is great business potential for ETC through the project.

"When our customers subscribe to the multimedia network, they can lease the bandwidth and access a multitude of services ­ high speed fixed or wireless Internet access, virtual private networks for corporates, and enhanced mobile and fixed line telephony, for example," he says.

Ethiopia is starting to overcome years of technological exclusion with the creation of an infrastructure that is as capable as those found in more developed countries. This has profound implications for the government, businesses, farmers, students, healthcare workers and ordinary citizens alike.