Addis Fortune (Addis Ababa)

Ethiopia: Surfing Free - Addis Hotels Become Wi-Fi Retreats

Teshale has been frequenting the hotel, which is one of a long list of Wi-Fi hotspots in Addis Abeba, for three months now.

"I first came here to meet a group of business partners," he recalls. "I saw people accessing the internet and did so with my laptop also."

Although Teshale only recently started visiting hotels for the Wi-Fi connections, this trend has been seen around town for some time. Just a couple of years ago, only a few Internet hotspots were available in Addis Abeba - a city with a population of four million.

Recently, however, it is becoming increasingly common to see hotels and restaurants offering the service for free. This attracts large groups of customers who arrive with their laptops, tablet computers or smart phones, eager to take advantage of the offer.

At Kenenisa Hotel, which was only recently opened, most of the people sitting in the lobby were surfing the net when Fortune visited on Tuesday, December 10, 2013.

The service is so popular that finding seating space in the lobby is a common problem, particularly for those who arrive in groups. "I find it difficult to get seats when I come with friends," says Gelila Tesfaw, a college graduate, who enjoys tweeting with friends and accessing entertainment websites.

This trend of customers crowding hotels and some restaurants is, however, not accidental. These establishments are cognisant of the high fees paid for access to the Internet, and the difficulty of obtaining high speeds even when affording the service.

According to the latest report of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) released in early November, Ethiopia, with less than two percent internet penetration, is lagging behind. It comes in 40th out of the 46 African nations included in the ITU report.

Ethiopia showed a one rank drop from the previous year. The report placed Ethiopia 151st in the ICT Development Index (IDI), out of 157 countries, and 152nd out of 169 countries in the price of fixed broadband connections.

The ICU, however, has recognised progress in Ethiopia in this same report. Ethiopia, it says, ranks second in Africa, following the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), in this respect, registering a 36.6pc increase in coverage, compared to 41.6pc by the latter. Although mobile broadband internet is now more affordable than the fixed alternative in developing countries, it is still costly compared to developed nations.

Those customers seeking a Wi-Fi connection do not seem to trouble hosts, at least not at Kenenisa, where the users are predominantly business people, who spend only a short time in the lobby and are time-bound. On the other hand, waiters rove around cautiously checking if there is anyone who is using the Wi-Fi internet connection for long periods without using any of the facility's services.

"So the customer either orders another drink or leaves," says Arbin Paumar, the operations manager.

Kenenisa, which is an Indian-managed establishment, entertains slightly over 100 people a day, he told Fortune.

While connectivity at hotels is generally seen as faster and more reliable than the service found at Internet cafes, some customers still complain.

For the most part, however, users find the connections workable, especially since surfing the web from the comfort of the plush hotel sofas enables them to combine business with pleasure.

Customers see hotels that offer free Wi-Fi services as a safe refuge, where loud music, constant discomfort and paying money to get connected do not exist.

For the time being, the capacity of Wi-Fi internet connections are limited to 200Gb.

"It's not as fast as it is expected to be," says Bezabih Getu, a private consultant, who would prefer more capacity to make the service faster.

Since early December, connection has improved since the Hotel has undertaken maintenance.

"We cannot fix it as we like," Paumar, the operations manager, admits. "Some of it is attributable to internet connection problems from the service provider."

The Hotel plans to upgrade the capacity to 1,000Gb, which is very fast. The Hotel will incur an average additional cost of 4,000 Br every month for upgrading the service. The Hotel will pay an average of 6,500 Br every month when providing the 1,000Gb Wi-Fi internet connection.

The cost is not a matter of concern, according to the Hotel management, since customers provide them with income from other services they use.

"I like hot macchiato and water," says Gelila, the college graduate. "I don't mind paying for food and drink I take, since I'm impressed with the free internet service."

Ethiopia began providing an Internet service in early 1997, through the state monopoly ethio telecom. Since then, customers, though rather slowly at first, subscribed to the 56Kbs connection, and gradually the broadband. This was largely limited to people who had businesses and owned computers.

In 2002, when internet cafes sprouted up, there were only 10,000 internet subscribers in the country.

Ten years down the line, that number has gone up to 960,331, along with the internet penetration. The growth, however, in a country with a population of 85 million, is not comparable to the rest of Sub-Saharan Africa. In Kenya, internet penetration had reached 41pc by the end of 2012, according to data from the Communications Commission of Kenya.

The internet usage in South Africa has also risen remarkably, up until last year, already involving 14 million people.

These countries are also cited as the most successful countries in Sub-Saharan Africa for reliable internet infrastructure.

Despite the overall IT environment in Ethiopia, Teshale and Gelila continue enjoying the free Wi-Fi, downloading for free, chatting with friends and even watching movies.

"I hope the connections get faster soon," says Teshale, who was scanning news updates from one of the international media outlets.

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