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AFRIK-IT  June 1999

AFRIK-IT June 1999

Subject:

Leased lines and dial tones in Ethiopia

From:

Jeff Cochrane <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

[log in to unmask]

Date:

Fri, 18 Jun 1999 00:43:46 -5

Content-Type:

text/plain

Parts/Attachments:

Parts/Attachments

text/plain (155 lines)

Greetings Afrik-ITes -- those who survived the latest virus scare at
least!

I've made some telephone calls and surfed a bit from some rather
remarkable places this last week.  None of the rock-hewn churches of
Lalibela had telephones, unfortunately, though apart from that they
were indeed some of the most astonishing places I've ever had the
pleasure of visiting.  For about $80, Ethiopian Airlines can fly you up
from Addis on Saturday morning, permitting an expertly guided tour in
the afternoon, and a return to the capital on Sunday.

Our tour was a bit more circuitous than that, however, as we needed to
make a few telephone calls from Bahir Dar first on Friday.  As our
plane prepared to land, we were told to lower our window shades.  We
were told that Bahir Dar is the base from which Ethiopia launches
some of its more sensitive aircraft.

In Bahir Dar at the offices of the Bureau for Trade, Industry and
Tourism we dialed one time and achieved an excellent connection via
the special 900 toll-free number to Ethiopian Telecoms.  As a test, we
visited the AfricaLink Directory
(http://gemini.info.usaid.gov/africalink) to demonstrate online forms
and data entry (using Cold Fusion as middleware and Access as the
backend database).  The Bureau Director searched online for our
Ethiopian counterparts as I explained that the database sits on a
server in Washington while our colleague in Nairobi maintains the
entries from her offices at the International Center for Research on
Agroforestry.  Response time was excellent, even though it was late
afternoon in Ethiopia, prime time for American surfers.

The suggestion to be considered by the Ethiopian Government is to
automate their process of business registration and licensing.  The
purpose of the demonstration to the Bureau Director in Bahir Dar was
to explain how an automated system might work in his zonal
registration offices.  Instead of filling paper forms, a business person
would instead sit down at a desk with a clerk, who in turn would enter
data directly into a computer database using either an Access or a
Cold Fusion form.  The underlying database would then process data
into monthly, quarterly and annual reports at the regional and national
levels.

The sticking point is the connection of the registration office
computer to central computers at the regional Bureau and at the
Ministry of Trade and Industry in Addis Ababa.  There are perhaps as
many as 60 places within Ethiopia where a business registration can
be obtained.  A dedicated link from each would be quite expensive
relative to the value of taxes that registration enables.

Taxation seems to be one of the principal purposes of business
registration.  We were told that avoiding taxes is not a crime in
Ethiopia, but operating a business without a license is a crime.  Thus
the government uses the registration process to enforce tax collection
by requiring a tax receipt before issuing a license.

Though we were asked to consider a fully automated system, by the
end of our discussions it seemed more reasonable to think about
diskette and email transfers of data.  It was also observed that the
present manual system of paper forms and registration books is still an
excellent system.  Once the applicant presents a tax receipt, the
registration process takes perhaps 30 minutes at most offices outside
Addis Ababa.  Automation will not substantially speed that process,
though it will certainly facilitate reporting and publishing of
information for both government and business purposes.

It is for publishing that it may be more reasonable to consider online
data services.  The Chamber of Commerce, for example, is keenly
interested in having reliable and timely business data online.  Similarly,
the Customs Department is interested in being able to look up license
numbers to verify paper certificates presented at clearing houses.  If
the nationally compiled business registration and licensing database
is made available on the Internet (password protected for more
sensitive data, but freely available in more summary form), then all
would benefit.

Where to house the server, however?  We know of two prominent
Ethiopian Web sites that are actually housed in Canada due
apparently to problems securing services from Ethiopian Telecoms.
Hosting possibilities include a leased line from Ethiopian Telecoms
Internet service to the Ministry, though some have told us that such
leased lines have proved problematic and have been discontinued, as
the users of leased lines have overwhelmed Ethiopian Telecoms
Internet capacity.  If that is the case, co-locating a server at an
Ethiopian Telecoms facility might be an option.  Otherwise, perhaps
locating a server in Uganda, South Africa, or outside the continent
should be considered.

This is one of the issues to be raised this morning with Ethiopian
Telecoms officials.  The AfricaLink program is not per se an
infrastructure program, but of course we are interested in behalf of our
African partners in the infrastructure services available in Ethiopia.
We'll be asking about leased lines, database servers, electronic
commerce facilities, the availability of basic PPP accounts, and modem
congestion.

We've heard serious complaints about these last two in particular.  We
were told by three independent and reliable sources that you cannot
get a PPP account now in Ethiopia -- the waiting list is too long, and
the system is already beyond capacity.  However, we also found
government offices in several places where accounts were opened in a
matter of days -- perhaps because they were indeed government
offices and not private businesses or homes.

We were also told that it is quite common to dial Ethiopian Telecoms
30 times during the daytime to get through to a modem, and we
witnessed this in several offices in different parts of Addis Ababa.
However, we also witnessed immediate connections after only one
attempt at many other offices both in Addis and around the country.
We were told services had improved dramatically about two months
ago.

We'll try and sort some of these issues out this morning at Ethiopian
Telecoms.  But I am frankly quite impressed with infrastructure
developments I've witnessed throughout the country.  Ours was not a
scientific sample, so perhaps others can add observations.  For
example, we saw eight new microwave lines from Nazret to Melkassa,
an important agricultural research center about two hours south of
Addis Ababa.  We heard about Ethiopian Telecoms VSATs serving
what look on the map to be quite remote corners of the country near to
Djibouti.  We saw evidence of old manual telephone exchanges in
very small towns being replaced with digital automatic exchanges,
enabling direct toll-free access to the Internet from what were once
remarkably remote places.

This raises again the old debate -- is a monopoly government telecoms
operator necessarily a bad thing?  A president of the World Bank said
that it all depends on how well it is run.  Are telecommunications
prices that are far above cost (essentially a tax) necessarily a bad
thing?  It all depends on what is done with the surplus revenue,
doesn't it?  If high surpluses are plowed into a rapid expansion of
infrastructure to serve rural towns, is that a bad thing?

After our surfing in Bahir Dar, the Bureau Director loaned us his car
and we visited the water that smokes, a tremendous waterfall on the
Nile River just south of Lake Tana.  There we witnessed construction
of a rather sizeable hydroelectric facility, but were told it would not
affect the falls, truly as wonderful in a natural way as the rock hewn
monolithic and cave churches of Lalibela are a marvel of human
endeavor.

Cheers!
Jeff @ Addis Ababa



-----
SETA Corporation Senior Analyst
USAID/M/IRM/CIS: Program Technology Transfer
USAID/AFR/SD/ANRE: AfricaLink
[log in to unmask]
http://www.info.usaid.gov/alnk
1325 G Street NW Suite 400
Washington, DC 20005 USA
Tel +1 (202) 219-0463
Fax +1 (202) 219-0518

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