The mobile phone service we are getting from our telecom company (ETC) is totally unacceptable. We are buying it because it is the only option. I had an opportunity to visit some countries in the North and the South. Let me share with you my observations in telecom related issue, particularly in the mobile phone aspect. I will begin from my observation in the west. As my intended stay was relatively long in one of the developed nation in Europe, I had to get a mobile phone to stay in touch. The options are too many; there are a number of subscribers and the service features these subscribers provide are many but comparable. As a result, my main criterion for choice was which subscriber most of my colleagues are using because calls within same network are cheaper than calls across different network (for instance, vodaphon to vodaphon call is cheaper than vodaphon to O2). Sim-cards are apparently for free, transaction and activation is a few minutes task and handsets can be purchased on contract basis or on immediate payment. One can find handset as cheap as 25 euro (about 275 Birr) with no obligation associated with it. Nothing may surprise you given the level of development the west has reached. I would end by saying the service is perfect, call waiting, call divert, browsing the net and etc you name it, all are possible from your handset.
Let me tell you the story of our immediate neighbors, I am referring to Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania. By the way these three nations are on negotiations to form an east African federation where the nations are heading towards erasing their respective national boarders. Mobile phone coverage is more then ten times wider compared to Ethiopia in these nations. There are a number of private subscribers; more than five in Kenya and four in Tanzania to mention figures. I bought a sim-card for 200 Tanzanian Shillings from a kiosk. Do not imagine that this amount is about 200 Ethiopian birr, not even close. It is less than one birr and fifty cents!! (It is about 300 times cheaper to get a sim-card in Tanzania than Ethiopia). Handsets are also relatively cheaper due to lower custom tax on the same. To keep the tax lower is rational if there is a commitment to widen the telecom service coverage and the politicians should be applauded for the undertaking. What strike me most is the recharge amount, the minimum recharge amount in Tanzania is 500Tshs (which is about three birr and fifty cents; compare this with our 25 birr minimum recharge amount and how many people can afford to have 25 birr at once). In addition, the recharge cards are locally printed resulting in a huge cost saving. As a result of this, from mini-bus assistants (Woyalas) to street cleaners even the rural pastorialist Masais has mobiles. There is immense competition among subscribers to attract new customers and retain the already existing one. As part of this effort, every now and then there are new features introduced by the subscribers and call and text message rates are going down.
“This year alone, Safaricom has launched five new services for its consumers. For Celtel, the count is seven - the latest being what the firm calls its “One Network”. The aim, Celtel marketing director Anne Othoro says, is to provide Africa’s first borderless mobile network in a region where, traditionally, trading and family relationships have crossed national borders. “One network is about one region,” she says.” BBC news.
As a result Celtel subscribed customers can use their mobile phone in any of the three nations paying a local rate for cross country calls. Note the difference here for Ethiopia; even with a single service provider (ETC) rates are different based on regions with in nation, a logic which I can’t understand. Another service on the rise in these nations is the wireless internet. Many of the mobile companies have commenced providing the service. A new arena for mobile service seems money transfer. In Kenya one mobile subscriber has introduced a money transfer service via text messaging. Improved mobile service is revitalizing other areas of the economy, even shaping their future. The revolution in telecommunication service is being spearheaded by the private sector. The current low prices and myriad service features would not have been possible without the involvement of the private sector. But Ethiopia is dropping behind in the race.
Let me get back to our own problems. Few years back our genius PM argument for not privatizing the telecom company and failing us not to enjoy what our immediate neighbors are enjoying today was allegation of the private sector tendency to focus on urban areas where maximum profit can be harvested, neglecting the rural areas. After so many years of effort to cover the rural areas with the service the argument has evolved. Letting ETC to the private sector is like allowing them to print money, according to the same genius. I guess there is another option, let ETC remain in the business being the government cash caw but allow private sectors to come with own networks, if there is good will to improve the service. Given the advantage in huge monetary and network asset ETC own, can’t it be competitive if private sectors allowed entering into the business short of privatizing ETC? After all ETC has absolute advantage over any emerging firm in the sector. What is at stake here? The government revenue or the role high quality telecom services play in development of the nation. For that matter, improved telecommunication service is not an end in development by itself, it is a means to an end, it facilitates development period.
As a matter of fact, we should not take the arguments of the PM not to privatize ETC or allow others to join the business at face value, as they are illogical and unconvincing even to a layman. The concern of the government (the ruling elite) is not improvement of the telecom service but effective control and censorship of information flow. I have been ridiculed by my colleagues from Africa (not to mention those from Europe) when I told them text messaging is not possible in Ethiopia. One of them said maybe it is because it is not yet 2000 in Ethiopia. Frankly speaking this has made me feel ashamed of our unique calendar, which once was a source of pride to me.
The nation could have attracted a lot of FDI in the telecom sector at the immediate and a lot more as a result of improved telecom service in other sectors eventually had private sector allowed to operate in the business. This FDI is channeling to our neighbors putting us into a further competitive disadvantage. It is embarrassing for a city which is claimed to be the capital of Africa to lack a telecom service that cities like Kampala, Dar es Salaam and Nairobi has. The bizarre thing is the government tells us day in day out that it is committed to develop the nation and is doing everything towards the achievement of this. But the reality speaks a different story; the government is the bottleneck for the development of the nation, so to speak a grave digger for our mother land’s down fall.