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Tuesday, 14 November, 2000, 17:11 GMT
Eritrea goes slowly online
Eritrea gets its first ISPs
By Alex Last in Asmara

The twangs, clicks and gurgling hisses emerging from modems across Asmara have created more excitement than ever before. Eritrea has finally, officially, gone on line.


I've been looking at everything and actually got a lot of information - though it is too expensive

Abduselam Abdai, graduate
Internet access has been given approval and four companies are now licensed Internet Service Providers (ISPs).

"It's fantastic. I've been looking at everything and actually got a lot of information - though it is too expensive," said Abduselam Abdai, a graduate, who was browsing the internet at one of the provider's offices.

The internet has taken years to arrive in Eritrea, which had become the only African country not on line. It was first proposed four years ago.

Each month, customers were told that it would arrive soon but it was always delayed.

Now, after several weeks of testing, the service is due for launch on 15 November.

Access

Tewolde Stephanos, whose company TFanus is one of the leading private servers, was pleased.


Our challenge is really how to make it available to students

Tewolde Stephanos, service provider
"I'm glad to see it finally arrive," he said. "I still have some concerns as to how available it will be to Eritreans."

"Our challenge is really how to make it available to students, which is my personal wish, and to see as many young Eritreans as possible to have experience with this."

The number of Eritreans with access to the internet is still small.

Only 1,200 currently have access to e-mail, which up to now has been downloaded from an overseas server.

Tewolde hopes that the excitement generated by the internet will double that number within six months.

Of course, only a few Eritreans are wealthy enough to own computers. But many of the ISPs offer walk-in use in their offices.

At the moment, five Eritrean towns have access: Asmara, Massawa, Keren, Mendefera and Dekamhare, with Barentu and Assab scheduled to be on-line in the next few months.

Expense

In order to promote the internet, the Telecommunications Service of Eritrea (TSE) has agreed that for the first few weeks the internet will be free. After that charges will be levied.

The cost of the internet runs at between 550 and 600 Nakfa ($55-60) per month for unlimited access, but there are cheaper charges for limited-hours access, which is popular with subscribers. Telephone costs are considered high by many Eritreans.


We need to involve the private sector in e-commerce

Estifanos Afewerki, Director of Telecommunications
Despite attempts to keep the cost low, the prices may discourage users at a time when Eritrea is suffering economically.

There are plans to install the internet in schools, the university, libraries and government ministries.

Commercial

The government also wants to develop the commercial side of the internet.

"We need to involve the private sector in e-commerce, hence organising a trade point in the chamber of commerce," explained Estifanos Afewerki, director of telecommunications.

"To make e-commerce possible, we are involving the financial institutions to establish a registration authority to facilitate secure transactions."

USAid has supported the establishment of the internet in Eritrea by providing equipment, funding and technical support.

The government says that there are no plans to control the access to the internet. It is possible to view Eritrean opposition websites and Ethiopian websites.

Slow going

There are still considerable technical problems though. The Gateway bandwidth of 512 kilobytes per second is shared by the four ISPs, which reduces the speed of browsing for users.

The connection for most users at home can fluctate between two and 25 kilobytes per second, which can make downloading even a simple page a long process.

Photos, video and audio can take interminable periods of time to download.

There is also concern as to the fairness of competition between the ISPs.

Two are truly private, one is a joint venture with the ruling party and the fourth which is late in starting is owned by the TSE, which also controls the only gateway to the internet for all ISPs. The regulator insists that the same rules apply to all.

"The TSE is no threat to the market, there will be fair play," promised Estifanos Afewerki

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See also:

28 Aug 00 | Africa
Somalia gets online
30 Oct 00 | Africa
Eritrea confronts the future
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