“You don’t need monopoly to shutdown the Internet”, Minister Debretsion Gebremichael[+Video]

Government ownership of Ethio-telecom saved the country from the woes of privatized telecom, Minister Debretsion Gebremichael (PhD) claimed in an exclusive interview with HornAffairs.

Debretsion Gebremichael is the Minister of Information Communications Technology Development and oversees Ethio-telecom, the sole provider of telephone and Internet services in the country.

Debretsion Gebremichael made the remark to HornAffairs in the weekend, responding to a question on the government’s motive to keep a monopoly on telecom services.

The interview was conducted amid the internet blackout to preempt a potential leaking and dissemination of national examination papers administered in the first week of June.

Citing the Internet blackouts in the past twelve months, HornAffairs asked whether security considerations are the real motive behind the government’s monopoly of telecom services.

Debretsion Gebremichael dismissed the allegation, arguing that the government doesn’t need to have a monopoly to conduct surveillance or shutdown services.

“You don’t need a monopoly to do that, you only need to be government”, said Minister Debretsion. He cited the participation of Google and Microsoft in United States surveillance programs, despite private ownership of telecom services.

The government’s policy to maintain state-monopoly of telecom is premised on socio-economic considerations, the Minister underlined, citing the progress made in rural telecom coverage.

Photo - Debretsion Gebremichael and HornAffairs' Daniel Berhane, Interview, June 2017
Photo – Debretsion Gebremichael and HornAffairs’ Daniel Berhane, Interview, June 2017

According to a government report, the number of mobile subscribers increased from 6.7 million in 2009/10 to 38.8 million by 2014/15. During the same period, Ethio-telecom deployed 3G and 4G mobile networks throughout the country with the capacity to provide services to 60 million customers.

Debretsion Gebremichael admitted the gap in overall telecom subscription in the country of 92 million. However, he argued, the country-level comparison statistics of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) do not take into account rural telecom coverage.

“The current method of comparison is not fair”, Debretsion Gebremichael said. “We have a gap in overall telecom subscribtion, but let us compete in rural coverage as well.”

“In many of the countries, telecom service is concentrated in urban centers and the number of subscribers is inflated due to the fact that an individual is allowed to hold several SIM cards.”

“There are formulas to adjust these numbers and conduct proper comparison of geographic coverage but they are not applied in ITU reports”, Debretsion Gebremichael noted. “A comparison in rural coverage would have helped us gauge our progress”.

HornAffairs was not able to include ITU’s remark on the matter due to the Internet blackout at the time of writing of this news.

Minister Debretsion Gebremichael claimed that many African countries, which have urban-rural population ratio similar to Ethiopia, lag far behind Ethiopia in rural telecom coverage.

The Minister recounted, “during the recent visit of Ethiopian Prime Minister to Arusha, the President of Tanzania acknowledged there are things to learn from Ethio-telecom in terms of rural coverage”. Debretsion Gebremichael also cited Ugandan and Sudanese ministers who lamented their privatized telecom for leaving the rural behind and foreign currency outflow and lauded Ethiopia’s “policy foresight”.

“We consider telecom infrastructure as essential as roads, therefore, the expansion is not driven by profit consideration. For example, we have upgraded the rural telecom infrastructure from the second generation (2G) to the third generation (3G) mobile technology. Obviously, we are not expecting profits but we know we will reap the benefits in terms of poverty alleviation”, Debretsion Gebremichael elaborated.

Currently, 2G mobile internet is switched on by default on almost all the 40 million mobile phone users in Ethiopia. Subscribers in Addis Ababa can upgrade to 4G, the rest of subscribers can upgrade to 3G. The government aims to increase mobile subscribers to 103 million and at least 50% of subscribers 3G and above by 2020.

About 97% Ethiopian rural kebeles are within 5 kilometers radius of telecom service, according to the government report in 2015. Rural kebeles are the lowest administrative unit with about 5,000 population.

The government is working to setup ICT centers in all rural kebeles by 2020, Debretsion Gebremichael said during the interview.

Debretsion Gebremichael obtained his PhD in 2011, from Capella University, with dissertation on the link between information technology and poverty alleviation in remote parts of Ethiopia.

Asked on how he managed to complete tertiary education while in office, Debretsion Gebremichael described the connection between his current focus on rural telecom and his PhD research, besides to his passion for education. 

“In fact, I  am against the practice of quitting job for full time education, since the objective is capacity building”, he emphasized.

Debretsion Gebremichael, 57(?), had joined Addis Ababa University in 1977, passing the national entrance exam with the highest possible score, he recounted during the interview with HornAffairs. However, he quit the subsequent year to join the armed struggle of Tigrayan People Liberation Front (TPLF) that toppled the government in 1991.

“I went to the Technology Faculty of Addis Ababa University just 2 months after we captured Addis Ababa”, Debretsion Gebremichael narrated. “An instructor of the University recalls to date that I had “congo shoes” (a light weight plastic shoes worn by TPLF fighters) when I went to the campus”.

Debretsion Gebremichael obtained B.Sc. and MSc in Electrical Engineering from Addis Ababa University and M.A. in Public Policy and Management from the University of London.

Debretsion Gebremichael joined the executive committees of TPLF and EPRDF in 2010 and became the deputy chairperson of TPLF in 2012.

Debretsion Gebremichael was appointed Minister of the newly established Ministry of Information Communication Technology Development in 2010. The Ministry was an agency until then, with Debretsion Gebremichael as its Director General.

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* You can watch the first part of the interview on HornAffairs YouTube account. 

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Daniel Berhane

Daniel Berhane