"Creating digital opportunities is not something that happens after addressing the 'core' development challenges, it is a key component of addressing other challenges," claim Ray Wilkinson and Errol Sundelowitz in their journal published in 2012 by the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (UNECA).
Indeed, effectively working in the digital age, in which telecom is at the forefront, is something which any state needs to uphold to stay strong both in the economic and politics arenas.
As a business sector, telecom has, nowadays, become among the most profitable business sectors creating a number of billionaires. To prove this, one is not necessarily expected to go to Europe or any other continent. There are so many promising businesspersons and companies that are flourishing in the sector within Africa. According to the recent report that revealed the 250 top companies of the continent, a number of them were in the telecom sector.
Even in Ethiopia, where the sector is monopolized by the state and at the same time the service has remained at its infancy level, the sector is the second profitable sector, next to aviation. As a matter of fact, the government invests about 10 percent of the country's annual budget to it, as of recently. From 2005-2007, the country's investment to maintaining the network infrastructure was 40 million dollars. When the government came up with the Growth and Transformation Plan (GTP) as well, the telecom sector received a budget of about two billion dollars - out of the 75 billion dollar budget. Since the time of Ericsson, the country has invested about 1.5 billion dollars into the sector. In a vendor financing agreement, Ethio-Telecom signed with the two Chinese telecom giants - ZTE and Huawei. The government also launched a 1.6 billion dollars expansion project as of last August 2013. The project, which was awarded to these Chinese companies following the increasing strong relations of China and Africa in general and that of Ethiopia in particular, is supposed to increase the number of mobile subscribers from its current status of 23 million to 50 million within two years.
As a result, it seems that the country is on a promising track when it comes to investing a large amount of money to the sector. Knowingly or unknowingly, however, the issue of maintenance and keeping the quality of the service is lagging behind. Though the government awarded a 1.6 billion dollars project - which is larger than the investment of that of the previous six years (the latter will last only two years), the fruits are not yet witnessed. The project is going in a very sluggish way.
Customers are offered the service quality that the world was used to two decades ago. The problem is worsening from time to time. Internet connectivity is a headache to customers of this sole operator. Next to Sierra Leone, Ethiopia's Internet connectivity is reported to be the poorest in the continent.
The minimal attention given to maintenance activities seems to take the lion's share in the failure. To take the case of last year seems to be a good showcase to understand the level of attention given to maintenance by Ethio-Telecom. During the whole solid year, there was no company legally in charge of taking the maintenance of the already existing network, according to close sources. As a result, connectivity has been, of course it is still almost the same, in specified areas in Addis Ababa extremely hard to access. The areas that are commonly known as 'Nokia areas' include Jemo and Kera areas - are the victims. Here, expansion without maintenance is like planting a bunch of plants and leaving them without any water.
Management problems also seem to be among the challenges that the country's telecom sector is facing. Experts still strongly contend that the international procedures are not being kept in the process of the vendor agreement. Here the case of IOT (Inter Operability Test), which is considered to be a necessity according to the international telecom scenario, is missed. Not only that but also 'Test- Bed,' which is another strict requirement, is also not yet developed, though a solid year has gone by since the signing of the agreement. As a result of this, the country's ranking in the digital economy has dropped even when compared to that of 2012. In 2013, Ethiopia was ranked to be among the last six countries across the globe with the worse ICT development as revealed by the United Nation's International Telecommunication Union (ITU).
These phenomena lead us to blame the management of Ethio-Telecom. The management, which was in the hands of the French company a few years ago, is still blamed for allowing telecom equipment without the aforementioned procedures. Given the fact that management is the key player on the quality of the service it offers, it takes the lion's share of the blame in the overall quality problems.
There are experts that claim the country can gain more profit and can offer good services by privatizing the sector. Desalegn Mekuninet - a telecom engineer at Addis Ababa University - in his research entitled 'Understanding the factors that force down Ethiopia's ranking in the digital economy' found out that the country can gain a profit tenfold from the sector by allowing private investors. Of course, the issue of privatization is a bit wider and more of a controversial issue. But, privatized or not, the level of connectivity is not a controversial issue that different people can have different views on as much as they are customers of Ethio-Telecom- the sole operator of the industry in Ethiopia. "Sorry, the number you dialed cannot be reached at this time," is the voice we, all customers, frequently hear from the operator. As customers, we are all too familiar with the recorded voice. To lose our 2G/3G signals is something that has become very familiar, especially as of recently. The call drop has also become very high, up to 80 percent according to the available reports. Noise and congestions are the other factors that are making the lives of Ethio-Telecom customers so hard. All in all, a lot remains to be done from the side of the monopolized sector if the country's ranking wants to be better in the digital economy. Most of all, the customer that is being charged one of the most expensive payments in the region needs to be respected.
Ed.'s Note: The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of The Reporter.