Huawei’s 4G deal with Ethiopia could help the government monitor the internet even faster

Huawei’s 4G deal with Ethiopia could help the government monitor the internet even faster
Image: Getty/Justin Sullivan
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Ethiopia’s state-run telecom firm Ethio Telecom said on Nov. 28 that Chinese telecom equipment maker Huawei Technologies will introduce high-speed 4G network in the capital, Addis Ababa.

The roll-out could be taken as another sign of the impressive growth of the telecom industry in some African countries where mobile phone usage is booming and technology is catching up with, and even surpassing, other major economies. Carriers in China, for instance, will only start offering 4G service next month. But it also means the continuation of a less welcome reality: the Ethiopian government’s strict control over the telecom industry and internet freedom in general.

Mobile phone penetration in Ethiopia is among the lowest in the world—about 2.5% of Ethiopians have cell phones, compared to 40% in neighboring Kenya. That’s in part because of poor infrastructure and state dominance—Ethiopia is one of the last countries in Africa to maintain a state monopoly over its telecom sector. (Ethio Telecom is the country’s only mobile operator.)

Keeping the private sector out of the industry means lost opportunity in one of Africa’s fastest-growing economies, but the government says the 8 billion birr ($430 million) Ethio Telecom generates a year is critical for developing the country’s railway system (paywall) and other infrastructure development. Another benefit is that the government is able to maintain a nationwide internet censorship system as well as monitor cell phone and online activity of citizens and dissidents.

Now, thanks to the $1.6 billion deal with Chinese telecom firms Huawei, as well as ZTE, which will also help roll out 3G and improve mobile network infrastructure, the government will be able to improve internet and mobile access on its own terms. As the Economist notes, “The deal with Huawei and ZTE will preserve Ethiopia’s state dominance and further put off the opening up of one of Africa’s largest economies.”

As a result, Ethio Telecom is likely to continue helping authorities keep a close watch on the country’s citizens, something that China knows a thing or two about.