By Eden Habtamu, Ezega News
Addis Ababa, July 29, 2009 -- These days, one of the last words many Ethiopian would like to hear is “Sorry, the subscriber that you have dialed is not in service area, please redial later”. And, of course, there is a second one from Ethiopian Telecom that is equally not pleasing: “Your account balance is low, please recharge soon”. By now, even the lady who recorded this message must be tired of hearing her own voice over and over again.
One of my instructors at Addis Ababa University (who taught us public relations) gave us examples of public relation officers who were working for different governmental and non-governmental organizations. He said, “let’s take the Ethiopian Telecommunication Corporation as an example: why on earth would Tele have public relations program? It is known that Tele has no competitors; and whether we like it or not, we have no choice but to be a client. In such a monopolized market, the role of public relations becomes insignificant.” In other words, why spend extra money when all customers are yours – guaranteed?
Ethiopian telecommunication has multi-dimensional problems: from selling its services, to maintaining and repairing the endless problems faced by its clients every day.
In addition to its voice delivery services, ETC recently introduced data communication technologies such as Code Division Multiple Access (CDMA). However, as always, it is lagging behind in providing good service to its customers. Most technologies arrive in the country very late. A recent example is GPRS, which is the data communication standard for previous generation of GSM networks.
When ETC launches a new service, the training that should be given to its staff (especially to the customer support personnel and sales agents) usually comes after its clients are used to the service, or never at all.
This was what I personally encountered when I tried to subscribe CDMA Internet access via the cellular network. Since I already have CDMA modem, what I needed from ETC was a SIM card and an instruction on how to use the service. So, I went to the nearby branch of ETC and waited for nearly two hours to talk to a guy who, I was told, was in charge of providing the CDMA card. After waiting that long inside an extremely suffocating environment (the branch office), it was my turn to take the card. However, the sales clerk simply told me that I was on the wrong line. Mind you, I stood there for nearly two hours because the coordinator guard told me to wait in that line.
Unbelievably, I had to wait on the other line again to get the "miracle card". This time, I was so thankful that I did not wait that long. After about 25 minutes, I reached the final and “right” place. The subscribing process was not that long. Within 3-4 minutes, I bought the SIM card and left the building with a high sprit that I will never come back to see the building again. I did not have any idea that I would be a regular customer to the office for weeks to come to understand their services.
I went home and tried the system to see if it worked. It was clear that the driver software for the modem was installed correctly and the SIM card received signal from the mobile network. However, I didn’t have the necessary information on how to connect to the Internet. Nobody told me that I was required to establish a dial-up connection to a special number (#777 in this case, as I found out later), and special credentials (username and password) that ETC created for all its users of this service. These are simple procedures that the ETC could have given its customers in the first place.
Then, another issue came up. When my account ran out of the initial credit that came with the SIM card, I was required to recharge my balance. Since the sales person did not tell me anything on this, I thought it might be similar to the mobile pre-paid calling system. Hence, I tried to do the same, but to no avail. I tried consulting all levels of service personnel at ETC, but none of them had any idea on how to recharge my account. The only thing most of them knew was the number to call, 903, to recharge the account, not the procedure of exactly doing it. I tried all possible options after dialing 903, but the voice from the other end kept asking me for a number that I never understood. Sadly, it took me ten days before I found a person that helped me resolve the issue.
There was another incident that is worth mentioning here from few weeks ago. For reasons that ETC could not explain, some pre-paid regular mobile SIM cards expired without any advance warning. Many people, including myself, were forced to spend two working days to get a new SIM card with the old number. We don’t have any guaranty that the new one will also not expire soon.
I asked why it took us two days to get the new SIM card. The reasons I got were different, depending on where I checked. After waiting in line for one hour, the first branch told me that they don't work on pre-paid cards anymore. The second and the third ones told us that their “system was down” for unknown reasons and did not have any idea when it would be back into operation. The fourth branch was not working due to power outage and failure of their generator. Finally, the fifth branch did not give us any reason except keeping us there for an hour. It seems the mangers were not doing their job properly as only a few agents were handling customers, with the rest of them probably having their "holiday" in the office.
This is just my personal experience on the quality of service at ETC, an organization that is supposed to serve the Ethiopian public with the latest technologies, but sorely lacking any modernity in its services. I believe most clients of ETC face the same difficulties in different ways.
The network coverage and strength of the mobile telephone network seems to be getting worse day by day. Signal drops in the middle of conversation are very common. You have to try plenty of times to get a line at the other end. And, Internet connectivity in Ethiopia is below minimum standard, regardless of the type of service you have: dial-up, wireless, and "broadband" (leased line). It is uncommon that you will get connection the first time. And if you get connected, it can get disconnected anytime. The speed of communication is always below anyone’s expectation, making internet use in Ethiopia one of the most painful experiences anywhere.
These problems may have other side effects, too. As people get disconnected, they tend to try reconnect again and again, paying more money on the top of the difficulties they endure due to poor service.
These days, thanks to the excuse created by another state monopoly, the Ethiopian Electric Power Corporation (EEPCo), the network is getting less blame. Whenever the line is disconnected, many people attribute the blame to EEPCo, believing that power outage affected the network. But, in reality, both institutions may be equally to blame for failing people all over. We saw the same network interruptions before and after the power shedding. So, it is difficult to assign the blame only to EEPCo.
ETC charges its clients more than its counterparts in many other African countries. In Kenya, “Orange Kenya” charges a tariff of only KSh 1.00 per minute, which is six times less than what ETC charges. Many telecom service providers are available in the Kenyan market, resulting in more competition, better quality of service, and lower fees.
Internet service fees are not better. In Ethiopia, 1Mpbs broadband internet service will cost you about US$1000 to install, and US$800 per month in service charges thereafter. Most US households get this (or better) service for US$25 per month and with no installation fees. That will make Ethiopian internet more than 40 times more expensive than a comparable or better service available in the USA. Think about it: people in one of the poorest countries in the world are paying 40 times what the rich are paying elsewhere.
All of this is probably costing the country dearly in future growth and prosperity. While most countries are rushing towards more technologies, Ethiopia seems to be sliding in reverse. The internet has become the world’s largest library. These days, everybody is going into the internet for information – scientists, engineers, doctors, businessmen, farmers, students, etc. Internet is probably the single most important innovation in history that leveled the playing field in favor of underdeveloped countries like Ethiopia. Previous innovations brought us finished goods to consume. The internet brought us knowledge to do things ourselves.
Survey on Technology Readiness conducted by the World Economic Forum covering 134 countries globally, including 31 African countries, ranked Ethiopia 132/134 – third from last. The Technology Readiness Index takes into account the use of technologies that enable a country to compete in the global economy effectively, including the proliferation of mobile phones, Internet, satellite communications, computers and other hardware, as well as the educational attainment level in the country. In this latest ranking for Technology Readiness (2008-2009), conducted by the World Economic Forum, Ethiopia not only performed poorly globally, but ranked second from last (30/31) among 31 African countries included in the survey. Only Chad ranked lower than Ethiopia.
ETC’s motto is “Connecting Ethiopia To The Future”. We do hope that, some day, ETC will live up to this noble cause and help the country move in the right direction.
This article was written by Eden Habtamu reporting for Ezega.com from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. She can be reached by email at News@Ezega.com. The article can be reprinted in full or in part elsewhere but only by giving full credit to Ezega. If reprinted on a website, we ask that you place this active link: Ezega Ethiopian News, pointing to http://www.Ezega.com.