What we do not do with our mobile phones! We text, we call, e-mail, Google, YouTube, trade and so much more. We are hooked so much so that we wonder how people worked and lived in a time that did not possess these shiny pocket-sized gadgets.
Mobile phone free days are not even a generation old, but it speaks to the power of technology, that of the digital age especially, that almost every adult in the world has an iPhone, a Samsung or a Huawei.
The narrative is the same here in Ethiopia. Mobile phones have reached parts of the country that telephone poles or lines could not reach, as they are too rural.
Cell phones only need access to satellites hovering up above the planet’s atmosphere. Creating this access is much less expensive and easier than laying the groundwork for telephone lines. As a result, almost everyone is a user.
Cell phones have become, much as toothbrushes, a fixture of a day-to-day life. Their popularity is not just the result of the gadget’s various purposes, but the ease with which one can operate a cell-phone. A four-year-old who can make calls or access the deepest stratum of an IOS is not a wild site anymore.
It would not be an exaggeration to say that there are 12-year-old people who own cell phones. It would also not be an exaggeration to say that there are very-old-people who make use of these very same gadgets, as witness my 90-something-year-old grandmother who, God rest her soul, owned a phone until her memory and eyes gave up on her.
Such circumstances point to the possibility that everyone else aged in between, who has even the most negligible of disposable incomes, also own cellular phones.
So surely, to meet this enormous demand, does Ethiopia have more than one mobile network provider? This would be the question a foreigner with even only a feigning understanding of economics would ask. The answer is no.
Ethio telecom is the sole provider of all forms of telecommunications, and state-run to boot. There is nothing wrong with this being the case if we were discussing telephone lines only. And there is also nothing wrong with heavily regulating phone companies, but the purpose of regulations to begin with, aside from impeding malpractice, is to counteract monopoly.
Not long ago, the Ethiopian Broadcasting Corporation (EBC) channel reported that five and 10 Br mobile credits have disappeared and that lower income users were feeling the brunt as they could not afford to buy 15 Br in credit every time.
Only a couple of days passed when, one after the other, shopkeepers informed me that they are out of 15 Br credits and I had to buy a 25 Br mobile credit. This was not at all surprising given that more people than was the norm were now forced to buy the same minimum of mobile credit.
The reason as to why cheaper mobile credits have disappeared is immaterial. There are always glitches or mishaps within a company – Ethio telecom is not perfect, but we can all agree it does a far better job than, say, the Ethiopian Electric Power Corporation.
The problem will certainly be fixed soon, maybe by the time this article makes it into publication, with very little damage – I am sure – to the company’s reputation. But the problem does expose a certain undeniable truth that Ethio telecom has become too comfortable with its position of exclusivity.
Ethio telecom is trying to impress customers. New perks are being added to the mobile network, like setting the kind of ringtone a customer wants a caller to hear when called. Or voicemail and other services businesses could rent for a price.
Making use of any one of this would cost customers money, meaning that they are business opportunities for themselves, instead of the company trying to beget new customers.
And it makes sense. A cell phone is essential, a cell phone needs a mobile network, and Ethio telecom is the only provider – where else could customers go.
Competition always creates an incentive to improve. There is nothing like the fear of losing one’s customers to put a company in line.
Users can far more severely punish a business than governments have ever been able to. It is true that over the years Ethio telecom, however gradually, has improved itself.
But it is not also moving at the pace other network providers around the globe are moving. It is not making the type of high-profile investments companies make, not only because they are trying to fix some glitch, but because they are afraid their competitors will either catch up or out do them.
And even if competition somehow does not bring about better services to users, at the very least, telecom prices will inevitably come down. A non-negligible benefit for a country where too many still live below the poverty line.
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