Who is to blame for ETC's ignominious failure?
By Hiwot W. Robert
October 28, 2006
Amare Amsalu, the current Ethiopian Telecom CEO, recently came out to the forefront and apologized to the entire ETC
customers and the Ethiopian people for all the ordeals they had to go through due to the series of wrongdoings (to say the
least) that took place at ETC under Amare's predecessor.
admitted a series of wrongdoings, including the unbelievable and intentionall-off-the-mark technology selection on the billing
system. He also confessed equipment worth millions of U.S. dollars were rusting away at ETC warehouse. "Our entire customer
data base is destroyed and the over 100 years old ETC has to be re-born" was what he said about the situation.
"I have come across to a purchase request of similar
items while those already bought are still at the warehouse," said Amare, who may not have been conscious of the whole affair,
or should we say his courage failed him to let the cat out of the bag? Apparently, he opted to be economical with the truth.
After all, he himself is a "meticulously" taken on appointee of the government and has to be "smart" at self-censorship to
stay in the position for a considerable period of time.
The truth is that all equipment stockpiled at the warehouse
(jokingly referred to as garbage depot) are not in working conditions. They are heaped up at the warehouse to hide a series
of white-collar crimes. They are worthless substandard dilapidated gadgets. The different projects coordinators who requested
the purchase of similar items are 101% right due to the fact they can never ever use those less than useless "telecom equipment"
purchased by the ex-CEO of ETC.
The current CEO of ETC did expose a series of wrongdoings with
particular emphasis on the latest in the series i.e. the billing system tragedy. The Indian Ushacom's (branded by ETC's Labour
Union as "wusha.com i.e., dog.com) billing system glitch is the tip of the iceberg. I urge readers to read more on corruption
at ETC by visiting the illustrious website called "The Anti Corruption Coalition of the Ethiopian Telecom Corporation Employees"
In a country whose deeply entrenched culture does not
appreciate admitting even a minor oversight, rather regarded as shameful, humiliating and degrading practice, the current
CEO's move is praiseworthy. The valiant move of the current CEO will go down in the history of ETC for a very long time to
come. All these series of wrongdoings had to be checked and exposed by the Ethiopian Telecom Agency /ETA/. The scope of telecoms
regulation differs from country to country. In Ethiopia today, there is, at least under
the law, telecoms-specific regulator i.e., The Ethiopian Telecommunications Agency /ETA/. The inaction of ETA is not only
just a failure to address the problem due to a possible unscrupulous raison d'Ítre, but also the consequence of lack
of relevant knowledge and human resource. The areas that have to be regulated (both in the short and long term) by ETA can
be classified under three broad (albeit overlapping) headings:- market issues, industry issues and technical issues. The most
basics areas of interest , inter alia, under the heading 'market issues' are: 1. Protecting User Interests 2. Investigating
User Complaints 3. Ensuring Customer Service Levels.
ETA had to make sure the contracts include clauses that
specify minimum levels of service. One can write a book under these headings. These are the most basics out of the most basics.
These are very important and the most basic duties of any telecom regulator in a monopoly environment.
The deep-seated problem with ETA is lack of knowledge.
The General Manager of ETA is a Chemist with additional six months training on Information Science (better known as Library
Science). With the advent of electronics media, internet and all other data communications etc, the very name 'Library Science'
could not be a name suitably fit to describe the academic discipline for long known as LIBRARY SCIENCE. It had to be renamed
and the name Library Science is abandoned and given a more fitting name, INFORMATION SCIENCE. The other guy is the ex CEO
of ETC, a Math Graduate, who attended a six months Information Science course after he graduated from math department of the
Addis Ababa University. These two guys presented themselves as Information Communication Technology /ICT/ experts and the
Government, characteristically indifferent and careless as it ALWAYS is for the welfare and well being of Ethiopia and Ethiopians, didn't bother itself much to make
a deeper assessment of the situation.
The Government rather checked only one thing i.e. the
fact that they are the "revolutionary democracy" archaic and bumbling dogma supporters. Actually, the Prime Minister ingenuously
and shamelessly said to the 77 million Ethiopian people that he is positively disposed to appoint an illiterate so long as
the illiterate high office candidate espouses the TPLF regime. In view of this, no wonder that a Chemist became a telecom
regulator /GM for ETA/, and a Math graduate a CEO for the Ethiopian Telecom Corporation /ETC/. We have to be "very grateful"
to Prime Minister (Chairman of Council of Ministers), Commander in Chief of the Army, Chairman of TPLF, Chairman of EPRDF,
Head of State-----Oh! Sorry, very sorry, the head of State is Lieutenant Girma W/Giorgis (maybe, Hailegiorgis – I am
not sure) -- last but not least, founder and Chairman of Marxist-Leninist League Tigray /MLLT/ "H.E", Ato Meles Zenawi, for
the fact that he has not appointed illiterates as he some years back enthusiastically and emphatically "PROMISED" us to do
it. When we go to the next point, we find another very interesting piece.
Being characteristics' of a monopoly situation, customer
interests are of little concern in Ethiopia
. A scarcity of lines, difficulty of making connections, high call failure rates, lack of service upgrading, inadequate response
to complaints and high international and local tariffs are just some of the issues that the customers in Ethiopia time and time again faced. ETC after spending $2.1
Billion USD has not yet met demands in the majority of the cities, towns, areas and localities, including Addis Ababa and
other major cities like Diredaw, Gondor, Mekele, Bahrdar, Awassa etc. ETC in the past tried to kill off or at least reduce
the demand by imposing an artificial and not cost based prohibitive tariff. The case in point is that ETC introduced wireless
fixed line telephony a couple of years before. ETC bought this system from a Chinese company. The capacity of this system
was around 40,000. ETC levied a 2000 Birr initial subscription fee. The net effect of this was that ETC could not sell even
100 lines. They crossed their fingers and passively waited for months and no single individual showed up. They had to back
off being tempered by the harsh economic reality of the country.
They were forced to reduce the initial subscription fee
from 2000 Birr to 600 Birr. The entire 40000 lines were sold within less than a week time from the date they announced the
price reduction. It is all ETC all the way. It was ETC that came up with an exorbitant tariff, and it was again ETC ,without
any pressure from any where else, that drastically slashed its original tariff and came up with a 70% reduction. The tragedy
was that the Chinese Wireless telephony was not up to the standard and many customers are acrimoniously disappointed. Some
have already given back the line and requested the conventional copper land line. I very much doubt the Ethiopian Telecommunication
Agency officials know all these things. These issues are characteristic of any monopoly situation where the customer has no
choice but to accept what is available. Thus, in keeping with the fact ETA's role, as an important area for regulation, had
to be primarily concerned with customer welfare, protecting user interests.
The Ethiopian Telecom Agency heard the recent billing
software disaster like any casual observer from the media and the informal information network (grapevine). ETA had no prior
knowledge of the situation, rather both ETA and its entire staffs as customers of ETC, were despondent and crying foul joining
hands with the ordinary public at large. What a pity! Ewnetu Tessema did write extensively about this fiasco billing system
a year or so before under the title "Ethiopian Telecom suffering under kleptocratic corporate governance". I am quite certain
the ETA staffs and the General Manager have read that article. It was not because he is a prophet or has got a special psychic
power that he could decipher the corrupt practice of ETC without delay. It was just because the corruption was very massive
and a readily understood broad day light robbery.
On another serious note, the Ethiopian Telecom Agency
needs to institute and administer a practical device whereby customers can divulge their grievance and, if such accusations
are legitimate, to obtain compensation. Funny enough, it is still ETC which is investigating customers' complaint that emanated
from the ignominious failure currently known as "India's billing system tragedy" which was supposed to replace the previous
AS 400 billing system. In effect, it means ETC is not only operator but as well regulator. Another important point worth mentioning
here is the fact that telecom has pervasive consequences of a communal character. For instance, a simple telephone line can
often also be a critical service for some segment of group of people. The necessity to call for assistance in times of urgent
state of affairs must not be overlooked. ETA assumes a social duty to spot areas of special requirement and guarantee that
such need is satisfactorily fulfilled. To this end, ETA should force ETC to provide free call services (like1-800etc) to certain
destinations for a reason of emergency. ETA so far has never had tried to identify such areas and impose obligation on the
sole telecom operator in Ethiopia . There
is no one occasion in which ETA requested at least to review and comment on any of ETC's business and/or expansion plan.
Even in the smallest African nations like Namibia , Botswana
, the terms of an operator's contract often include clauses that spell out bare minimum levels of service that the operator
be obliged to provide. If the specified levels are not achieved, the operator is in contravention of its licence and is at
risk of having the licence revoked. In the Ethiopian context, if revoking license is not an option and not the best option,
ETA should at least impose other moderate and reasonable sanctions. ETA has no fervor for such professional activities.
The ETA General Manager is year in and year out busy
"gracing" international, conferences with his presence. There are plenty of telecom conferences in different parts of the
world. There are regular international, regional and sub regional telecom conferences in Africa
. Without exaggeration, there are over 50 conferences, seminars, workshops per annum. The ETA General Manager never ever misses
an opportunity to miss an opportunity when it comes to traveling abroad. Who pays this huge travel expense? Of course the
Ethiopian people. It is the hard won hard cash which is being spent in such a way. If any one of you who read this article
don't believe what I am telling you, just go to ETA's head office any time during working hours and ask for the General Manager.
You will immediately be told that he is outside Ethiopia
. Let us go to another point.
The Ethiopian Telecommunications Corporation /ETC/ frequently
uses the community's resources in order to provide the services it offers. The most obvious example is the radio spectrum
by which ETC as a sole mobile operator transmit telecoms traffic to its customers. But this is not the only example: laying
cable beneath the road network and through public premises is another.
Such uses of the public's resources need to be dealt
with carefully, especially since they tend to be scarce. There is only a set amount of spectrum available, and it needs to
be assigned with awareness so as not to be in an awe-inspiring problem in case a second mobile operator pops up someday in
the future. Also, road works should not be allowed to occur in a random and hysterical manner for the upshot on the environment
would be excruciating. ETA has to regulate public resources as it is an important component of its job. Does ETA has the faintest
idea about this? NOT AT ALL! ETC is using radio spectrum as it wishes. This is because ETA is NOT doing its job.
In present day Ethiopia telecom is an exclusive possession of the Government. This monopoly for
sure won't be there until the 'dooms day'. The radio spectrum is also used by ETC to provide wireless services to its customers.
However, the spectrum is limited and therefore will not for sure be freely available when we one day "wish" to privatize the
The Ethiopian Telecom Agency's role should thus be to
be forward looking and progressive with anticipation that there will certainly be more than one telecom operators in Ethiopia someday in the future and decide how many operators
can use the spectrum and how much each should have. The matter is not just one of dividing up a scarce resource as fairly
as possible when the Ethiopian "Federal" "Democratic" "Republic" Government (may be it is republic, federal, democratic blah,
blah… – I am not sure - It is a long and redundant one) allows more than one operators. In addition, different
technical problems may arise due to the nature of the spectrum. To further illustrate the point, different structures like
buildings and Ethiopia 's geography may
have an effect on the way it can be used. Moreover, while the possible future private operators may have distinct ranges of
spectrum, there is a need to avoid interference caused by the traffic from one operator affecting that of others.
The other important job of ETA should be ensuring compliance
with Licence Terms. Any where in the world a licence issued by a telecom regulator as a rule includes various terms and conditions
that the licensee must meet. The Ethiopian Telecom Agency therefore needs to monitor the ETC's performances on occasion to
make sure that the terms and conditions are being met. If they are not, then some form of sanction must be taken. Initially,
this may be just a reprimand. If ETC still fails to meet its obligations, sanction should follow. In a country like Ethiopia where there is only one telecom operator, to monitor
performances on an ongoing basis is very imperative. In practice, the Ethiopian Telecom Agency does not conduct the monitoring
even when a complaint has been lodged. The Ethiopian Telecom Agency hereafter has to perform monitoring when it has some other
reason for believing that its standard conditions are being violated by the sole operator, ETC. ETA is set up to control the
development and expansion of telecom in Ethiopia
. The reality, however, is that the Ethiopian Telecom Corporation is allowed to regulate itself. ETC in turn seems enjoying
the regulatory power it is exercising by default.
Apparently, this is what ETA wishes to do i.e., to allow
"self regulation" to ETC. If that is the case, the establishment of ETA with all the annual budgets etc is uncalled for and
a tragic waste of our poor country's limited resource. If ETA is still needed by the Government to "impress" the World Bank
and other financial agencies, ETA can take different measures to facilitate this "self-regulation" ONLY in some areas of the
telecom activities. The Ethiopian Telecom Agency can produces codes of practice for SOME areas. If ETC does not abide by such
codes where they apply, ETC has to be liable to having sanctions taken against it. Such codes of practice are available. International
bodies have produced different types. The Ethiopian Telecom Agency can have an eclectic nature of its own by adopting them
to the Ethiopian context. Here it has to be clear that ETA can not wholly "delegate" its powers to ETC or allow it to regulate
itself in all areas. This would be totally unfair from customers point of view. Besides, it opens a wide room for corruption
as it did so far.
One of the most important functions of the Ethiopian
Telecom Agency should be setting tariffs. Determining the prices that operators charge their customers is an issue that ETA
should pay maximum attention to. In a well functioning market economy there still is the need to do so. Actually, where a
mature competition exists and is performing properly, operators that over-charge for the service they provide will lose their
customers to their competitors. Maybe, too much reduction of tariff could be regarded as unfair competition in such countries.
The other job of ETA should be investigating Complaints
from re-sellers. ETC has "out-sourced" some of its activities like internet service provision and sale of Subscriber Identity
Module card for mobile services. These re-sellers of the ETC's services and mobile SIM- card do have serious problems with
ETC. These re-sellers are licensed by ETA and have fully complied with all the license requirements of ETA. They are regularly
paying all administrative fees. They are also paying all government taxes like other business men. Since the Ethiopian Telecom
Agency issues licences to re-sellers of telecom services with terms and conditions attached, any abuse of such terms by the
Ethiopian Telecom Corporation should be a matter for ETA's concern.
Therefore, the Ethiopian Telecom Agency must set up a
complaints resolving mechanism where re-sellers themselves may express their disquiet over improper practices by ETC. ETC
for instance used to provide same service at a reduced rate by installing a coin box public telephone right at the gate of
the ETC services re-seller. It is a clear case of unfair competition at its rudimentary level. We have to start laying down
the principles, get used to the concept and face its fullest extent when the time comes.
On another point, I insist the Ethiopian Telecom Agency
should never ever shy away from its core task of approving equipment that is connected to a network. This 'type approval'
is intended to ensure the integrity of the network and guarantee high quality service to those who use it. If ETA had properly
exercised this core duty, ETC's inferior quality gadgets currently dumped at its warehouse wouldn't at all have been purchased.
There is in criminal law a concept called "commission by omission". ETA officials have committed a criminal offence by their
inability or unwillingness to exercise their powers and duties vested in them and the institution they are heading by a Proclamation,
which is the highest in the hierarchy of laws, and promulgated, at least theoretically, by the "supreme" and "most powerful"
organ of the government i.e., the Parliament.
Finally, my whole intention is not to disparage or dehumanize
anyone. We Ethiopians should reinstate our fathers and fore fathers great personality known as Ethiopian virtue, compassion,
manner and high moral standard, better known in Amharic as Ethiopiawi chewanet. It is I believe the 1974 bloody revolution
that traumatized such virtues that had to go down the line to many more generations to come. We truthfully thought they were
parts and parcels of the feudal socio economic formation. As the result, we campaigned against our virtues. I was some days
back discussing with one of my email contacts on this issue. She said, "We have gone so very low (very near to the ground)
and the only consolation we have is that we can't go any lower". I have promised her to write an article under the title "WEY
TARIK WASHTUAL ALYAM TIWLD TEBELASHTUAL" –UNTRUTHS OF HISTORY OR A PUTRID GENERATION ?-
As we all are God's children and created in his own image,
each and every one of us is capable of doing something. When we are asked to do a job which is far outside our mainstream
domain or specialty in terms of our experience and training, we have to have the high moral standard to stand up and say 'I
am not suitably fit for this position or job'. Ethiopia
can't afford such an out and out irresponsible decision of making a chemist and a mathematician an Information Communications
Technology /ICT/ expert or a medical doctor. The difference between Information Science and Information Communications Technology
is NOT a semantic issue. Any attempt to lump or confuse the two is like comparing an apple and orange.
Accordingly, I see no earthly reason why one should study
engineering to be a medical doctor. I see no earthly reason why one should study math, Library Science or by its current name
INFORMATION SCIENCE to be a telecom company manager. I see no earthly reason why one should study chemistry, Library Science
or by its current name INFORMATION SCIENCE to be a telecom regulator. I see no earthly reason why one should study medicine
to be a liberarian. Knowledge is not that cheap to be obtained by being anointed by someone who walked into Menelik Grand Palace
by accident of history. Knowledge is not to be drunk like whisky on a celebratory gathering the day one receives the appointment
letter. Knowledge is a result of untiring and unreserved hard effort and intensive and extensive research. Knowledge does
not come from power. Rather the opposite is true. Who is to blame for ETC's ignominy? The government comes first in the line
of list of culprits for ETC's failure.
The government's wrong telecom policy is the major factor
revolving behind this debacle. Should the Telecom Agency /ETA/ be responsible for ETC's failure? The answer is big YES and
it is actually part of the government and very hard to make a fine distinction between the "arat kilo" guys and ETA General
Manager. The reasons are stated above. I got the whole information and some of the bureaucratic data from the ETA employees
who are desperately looking for a radical change to come any time soon. Many of ETA employees need to be real regulators.
Many of ETA employees need a clued-up professional to take over and do what he can do even under difficult circumstances.
Many of ETA employees are exasperated and perplexed seeing the country's limited hard cash being used as a vacation money
for few. My most humble submission to these employees of ETA is never to give up hope. ETC employees could dismantle the highly
intricate mafia type triangle of corruption by being persistent and never giving up hope.
The writer, Hiwot Robert, can be reached for
comment at firstname.lastname@example.org