Small answers to a big question

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Twice did I want to speak French very badly. The first occasion was when Parisians were not that friendly during my visit in the beautiful city. Why can’t they be like New Yorkers?! “Who did colonize u then?” was the common question from people who were surprised an African isn’t speaking French. My response was of course no one. When the former French ambassador to Ethiopia, Stéphane Gompertz, published a book reflecting on his stay here between 2003 and 2007, I wanted to speak the language even more. As usually diplomats tend to get out of their comfort zone and say what they really feel once they leave their posts, it would have been very interesting and informative to learn what one of the most active foreign diplomats of the recent times has to say. Too bad most of us won’t be able to read his book as it is written in French. But during an interview about the book the former ambassador shared something which he thinks has not progressed since he saw Ethiopia last. What else?! Our telecom. Let alone a foreigner, even a local can see how little progress our telecom industry has been registering. Don’t get me wrong I do see how the government’s decision to bring a French company to manage Ethio Telecom is turning out to be a good move. We have seen a lot of changes; I can now check my emails on my phone. Tariffs have been made to be uniform which, as seen in case of many countries, I think has encouraged more contacts between callers in different regions. The move should stimulate not only communication but economic, social and even possibly political interactions across the country . It is also more revenue for the government. Lowering further the cost of having a sim card to 40 birr is also another smart move. If this would be supported by a decision of lifting or lowering multiple taxes imposed on mobile handset imports, we would see a surge in mobile penetration in the country. The latter move requires the government to understand the potential huge sum that awaits them from purchases of sim card and air time that comes from the mobile penetration surge which can result from giving up relatively small money from the duties of handsets’ imports. The government needs to revise its overall telecom strategy because there is a limit to what a good marketing strategy by the French managers can bring. Certainly it cannot result in the lowering of cost and improvement of service competition which could have brought to us a long time ago. Not only competition could have lowered the cost of owning and using a mobile long time ago, it would have improved the service and ICT’s contribution to expedite our apparently very fast moving economy. How many of our “vibrant” ministries that try to attract foreign investment have a regularly updated and interactive website? Same goes to the banks or businesses that mobilize huge resource. Not only businesses here are not forced to develop interactive websites but even if they did, a lot of their local customers will still prefer to call or go to them in person as the Internet connection we have is not dependable or efficient enough. To see how much our slow internet connection is pulling behind businesses, talk to a business man who would tell you his painful but unfortunately too numerous encounters of inefficient telecom network he faces while trying to send money to Hawassa or Gonder through local private banks. Reforming the old telecom and transforming it into an efficient and more profitable company is one thing-certainly a positive one. However, it is not a remedy to our telecom sector experts say is way behind the rest of the world. “It is just a factual matter that the level of penetration of the Internet and mobile phone use is significantly lower than almost any country in the world. I think the underlying infrastructure may have been so poor that nobody really could use it,” said Blair Levin, an American telecom expert in a Capital interview few months ago. This guy who oversaw the US National Broadband Plan says unless the level of penetration significantly improves and reaches certain level, the Ethiopian economy cannot really benefit from it. As Prime Minister Meles Zenawi admitted during his party’s congress held in Adama, why his government isn’t letting go the monopoly of the telecom sector is purely from an income point of view. “If I were the government [this is consistent with what the PM said] you want to look at the overall picture of the country; you want to look at the economic growth of all the citizens, not a single unit within the government. So what we found for example was that when the US sold spectrum, the government made tens of billions of dollars but that actually was not that important relative to the hundreds of billions of dollars in private investment, hundreds of billions of dollars in new jobs, hundreds of billions of dollars in improved business processes; that is really far more important to the country than the relatively small amount of profits the company would make,” was the advice from the expert who studied the Ethiopian telecom industry. While Ethio Telecom understandably seems to be putting a lot of effort in trying to find new ways to bring more funds to fill the state treasury, the government can be at least guaranteed its overall revenues won’t go down if it holds itself for the more appropriate role of regulating the industry and allows other companies to enter the local market. While forming Ethio Telecom [please avoid using the acronym ET that can be confused with the short form of Ethiopian Airlines] did answer some of the small challenges, revising our telecom sector and allowing competition is the real and big answer to our struggling telecom industry. I know we will get there but when exactly? As Bereket Simon professed in his new book if the ruling party really feels they are also competing against time to do good by the country’s economy, the telecom remedy should not be realized after Meles steps down though I would not put my money on the latter either.