Thursday 20 May 2021

Eritrea, the last country in the world to adopt a mobile phone system

Eritrea was allegedly the last country in the world to adopt a mobile phone system. Its sole provider EriTel is hardly accessible to foreigners as it requires a resident's permit, is tightly controlled by the government, a very high connection fee and some weeks to get connected to a network mostly 2G-only with few 3G cells. There is a separate CDMA network covering 85% which is not compatible with most GSM phones.

A report by the International Telecommunication Union says that internet penetration in Eritrea is just above 1%. Sim cards are like gold dust in Eritrea. Citizens need to apply to the local government administration to get one. And even if you get a Sim card, you can't use it to access the internet because there is no mobile data.

People can only access the internet through WiFi, but it is very slow. To get onto social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, people use a virtual private network (VPN) to circumvent government censorship.

Considerable investment in telecom infrastructure is required to improve the quality of services. The government has embarked on a work program to do exactly that, specifically aimed at extending services to remote areas, improving the quality of services, and ensuring that more telecoms infrastructure is supported by solar power to compensate for the poor state of the electricity network. 

Eritrea is currently, after Ethiopia, the last telecoms market in Africa operated solely by the public incumbent company (Eritrea Telecommunications Services Corporation -EriTel). Despite several appeals from the World Bank on the need to liberalize the national telecommunications sector, in view of the definite impact on socio-economic development, the Eritrean government has been slow to open the market to competition.  Although 3G networks are being rolled out across the country, this is a long process that will take time. The government has started a programme that aims to extend 3G services to remote areas, using solar power to support the country’s electrical infrastructure. 

The need for the development of the telecoms infrastructure in Eritrea means there is huge potential to open the door to connectivity to the vast majority of the population. With so little terrestrial infrastructure in place, satellite can play a critical role in connecting the country in a quick and cost-effective manner. As we know, mining is an important part of the Eritrean economy and the productivity of this industry can be further enhanced through the use of satellite connectivity. Additional foreign investment in telecom infrastructure, as well as introduction of more competition, would help transform this virtually untapped market. 

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