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Ethiopia Telecom's Next Generation Network Supports a Nation's Economic Transformation

January 18, 2005

By Jason Deign, News@Cisco

Turning Ethiopia, one of the world's poorest nations, from an agriculture-based economy to one influenced heavily by information and knowledge is no small challenge. But it is one the Ethiopian government is intent on rising to - with help from Cisco Systems®.

In fact, the government sees this transition as vital for the future of the country. Ethiopia had an estimated gross national product of less than $6,670 million in 2001, equal to a $100 income per head for each of its 67 million citizens.

Agriculture has long reigned as the dominant economic activity, but in 2001 the government recognized that traditional agrarian practices were unlikely to fuel significant long-term growth.

As a result, the Ethiopian Ministry of Capacity Building drew up plans to enhance education, healthcare, the agricultural sector and services offered by government departments.

The blueprint would draw on funding from The World Bank, African Development Bank and International Monetary Fund, but it was clear one further vital ingredient was needed: information and communication technology (ICT).

So, undaunted by the fact that the country only had four telephones per 1000 people at the time, the government proposed three projects to form the bedrock of its future ICT infrastructure.

The first, Woredanet, was intended to link almost 600 local ("woreda") and 11 regional government offices around the country with each other and with the Federal government headquarters in the capital, Addis Ababa, to provide a foundation for e-government.

A second, Schoolnet, would allow more than 450 education institutions to receive educational TV broadcasts for e-learning.

And the third, Agrinet, would connect more than 30 research and operational agricultural centers to stimulate growth in the agrarian economy.

The Ministry of Capacity Building issued a tender for Woredanet in early 2003 and the work was awarded to Business Connexion (formerly Comparex Africa) - an African systems integrator and Cisco gold partner - and the Ethiopian Cisco value-added reseller GCS-NCR.

Since it was clear that the project would involve sending and receiving large volumes of voice, video and data traffic at high speeds, the government also brought in the PTT Ethiopia Telecommunications Corporation (ETC).

At the time, ETC had a synchronous digital hierarchy (SDH) ring over a mixture of fiber optic and microwave links, which provided limited carrier services to its voice switches but was congested over many trunk circuits.

A Frame Relay network also provided data services to some 500 commercial clients.

The Ministry's plans demanded that multimedia traffic be carried across the urban areas of Addis Ababa, the less-developed areas outside the city and the rural settlements in some of the remotest, most inaccessible parts of the country.

This, coupled with the projected growth of fixed and mobile telecommunications demand as the economy picked up, made ETC realize its existing network would struggle to cope.

So the company went out to tender for a core high-speed network capable of routing many different kinds of traffic around the country, plus a broadband satellite network and an additional layer to the backbone that could offer dedicated broadband access to the Internet.

Cisco and Business Connexion were awarded the core network project, complementing their involvement with Woredanet, while the satellite network project became the responsibility of US based Hughes Network Systems.

Given the criteria that the core network had to meet, the convergence of voice, video and data traffic was crucial, as was an open standards protocol stack and a powerful transport layer that could cater for future growth.

To meet these requirements, ETC opted for an infrastructure based on the Cisco ONS 15454 SDH Multiservice Provisioning Platform (MSPP), which provides the functions of multiple network elements in a single platform.

This formed the cornerstone of a network backbone covering Addis Ababa and its surrounding areas, while more remote areas of the country were reached using VSAT (very small aperture terminal), a satellite communications technology.

Given the nature of Ethiopia's terrain, a large percentage of the equipment had to be moved to towns and villages up to three days walk from the nearest road or three days drive from the nearest town, a task which required air drops managed by the Ethiopian military.

The upshot is that ETC, the Ministry of Capacity Building and the project partners were able to create a country-wide network from scratch, using a combination of fiber, microwave, wireless and satellite technologies.

To date, the first phase of Schoolnet is up and running with many of the secondary schools already receiving educational TV broadcasts from the Educational Media Agency, using terrestrial and satellite networks.

Educational content is being broadcast to large flat-panel screens at those schools and the number coming online is increasing consistently.

The second phase of the project, which provides the schools with PCs, Internet access, local area networks and other technology, is currently being investigated. Woredanet is up and running and quality testing is underway on the network.

While the final touches are still being added to the project, the impact of this infrastructure is already difficult to overstate.

In one fell swoop, Ethiopia has overcome years of technological exclusion with the creation of a next-generation network that is as capable as those found in more developed countries.

All woreda and regional government offices are coming online via VSAT in rural areas, DSL outside Addis Ababa or a combination of Metro Ethernet and DSL in the capital.

And, last but not least, the network is also vital for ETC, giving it an infrastructure that not only supports the government's economic and social development projects but also creates a platform to expand its own business, for example through the provision of Internet-related services.

It is a model other African service providers could profitably copy in future.

Jason Deign is a freelance journalist located in Barcelona, Spain.

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