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Ethiopia joins the fast lane

Ethiopia is nearing the completion of a six-month project designed to radically overhaul its public telecoms infrastructure.

Ethiopia is nearing the completion of a six-month project designed to radically overhaul its public telecoms infrastructure.

The country, one of the world’s poorest, recruited Cisco Systems recently to expand and upgrade the network of national telco, Ethiopia Telecommunications Corporation (ETC).

Through the US$10 million deal, the US-based networking technology provider and its African partner, Business Connexion, supplied a core broadband network that will route voice, video and data traffic around the capital city, Addis Ababa, and other regions.

A further US$26 million has been invested in satellite infrastructure to connect the country’s more remote areas which physical lines can’t reach.

The network upgrade sits alongside a plan to drive ICT usage in key areas of Ethiopia’s economy.

In a scheme launched by the Ethiopian Ministry of Capacity Building, both the satellite and terrestrial systems will be used to support three independent networks providing triple play services to government offices, schools and the agricultural community.

“The whole idea is to provide connectivity and interactivity from the capital to the most remote villages,” says Reza Mahdavi, Cisco’s VP for emerging markets. “It will be used for a variety of things. For example, if the prime minister wants to send a message to the public, people that have never seen a TV before will have an opportunity to hear what [he] has to say and ask questions,” he adds.

The first, more basic, aim of the project was to transform the level and quality of mobile, fixed line and data services that ETC can offer to the public and its corporate customers.

Before it started, the telco had an installed base of 350,000 fixed phone lines and around 10,000 internet customers.

An existing synchronous digital hierachy (SDH) network ringed the capital, but according to Cisco, many of the links were congested.

A Frame Relay network also provided connectivity to around 500 of ETC’s corporate clients.

To upgrade the telco’s infrastructure, a transmission network was created around Addis Ababa, based on Cisco’s multi-service provisioning platform.

This will be used to transport mobile and fixed-line analogue voice traffic.

An additional IP/MPLS layer will also support Frame Relay and Asynchronous Transfer Mode (ATM) networks.

The move will allow ETC to offer IP virtual private networks (VPNs), broadband via DSL or fixed wireless access (FWA) to its clients, as well as preparing the country’s internet infrastructure for incoming competitive players.

To connect up other parts of the country, Cisco deployed a combination of high speed fixed and microwave links — some covering distances of up to 700km.

For the most remote areas, very small aperture terminal (VSAT) networks, supplied by Hughes Network Systems, were used to provide satellite connectivity.

They were interfaced with the core network through a microwave link between an outlying earth station and ETC’s hub in Addis Ababa.

“The VSAT network carries the service to around 1200 remote sites which are not reachable by terrestrial networks,” says Peter Retief, operations executive for Africa at Business Connexion.

Alongside the improvements to ETC’s services offered by the converged infrastructure, Cisco also built three networks to provide new technical capabilities to Ethiopia’s public, educational and agricultural sectors.

Each system was designed to make use of the additional bandwidth provided by the core network and support services such as high-speed internet access, e-mail, one-way broadcasting, video-conferencing, and voice over IP (VoIP).

The first, ‘Woredanet’, will interlink 600 local and eleven regional government offices with the Federal government’s headquarters in Addis Ababa.

The second network, ‘Schoolnet’, will provide over 450 secondary education institutions around the country with internet access and allow them to receive broadcast TV-based educational content from media agencies.

The third, ‘Agrinet’, will link more than 30 research and operational agricultural centres.

“Schoolnet is practically up and running. Schools are already receiving educational TV broadcasts… using the terrestrial and VSAT networks,” says Retief. “Woredanet is also almost complete — quality testing is underway,” he adds.

A fourth network, meanwhile, is also being mooted. This will connect all Ethiopia’s major referral hospitals and form the basis for a nationwide tele-medicine initiative.

According to Mahdavi, part of the programme will see the deployment of an application jointly developed by Cisco and the World Health Organisation (WHO) for infectious disease control.

“We have had a pilot roll-out [of the application] in Egypt but this will be the first ‘true’ deployment,” he adds.

The overall implementation was not without its challenges, however.

The effectiveness of the VSAT infrastructure for IP telephony and video conferencing is apparently yet to be proven, for example.

Various geographical barriers also had to be overcome.

FWA terminals were deployed to bridge some line-of-sight gaps in certain urban areas.

Given the use of microwave links to span considerable distances between the capital and outlying regions, coding and compression algorithms were employed to speed up the transmission of voice traffic and cut costs.

In addition, the nature of Ethiopia’s terrain meant that the country’s military had to be enlisted to air-drop equipment into remote sites.

The regulatory environment in Ethiopia concerning VoIP also provided a bureaucratic hurdle for customers once the infrastructure was in place.

“ETC has to license IP telephony services but the first licences have been granted,” says Retief.

On another level, there was also a public relations issue to tackle.

In a country where only five in 1000 people have fixed-lines and GDP per capita stands at US$100, those behind the project conceded that it could prove difficult to gain acceptance of the expense of the project.

“Any project like this brings criticism. [People say], for example: ‘Why don’t you buy more bread and fewer switches?’ But we were very aggressive to make sure that we earned their respect,” says Mahdavi.

The importance of the success of the project was also amplified by the fact that its financing was provided from Ethiopia’s internal budget.

But the government remains confident that its benefits will cut down on the technological exclusion of the vast majority of the population and help diversify an economy that is based almost solely on agriculture.

“[Agriculture] contributes half the GDP and 90% of our export earnings,” says Ato Asfaw Haile Mariam, deputy GM of IT and data services at ETC. “The government recognises that we need alternative long-term growth strategies to create a knowledge-based economy. That is why we are embracing this technology to enhance the education and agriculture sectors, and improve the government’s ability to deliver high-quality public services,” he adds.

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