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Blocking VoIP Blocks National Future

July 11, 2012

Of course, one laughs at the past when reading such stories because, now, the phone is taken for granted.

But, for the priests of that time, there were valid fears. One of the only forms of distance communication “technology” they knew was educated priests claiming to talk to the devil or dead people’s sprits from another world.

Since this pre-existing, unpatented claim to communication already existed in the society, it did not take the priests long to associate the voice in the telephone box with an evil spirit. So, the telephone was met with stiff resistance.

A renowned author, Paulos Gnogno, narrates how the priests tried to keep this evil box out of the country, with fire and holy water, to protect Ethiopia, in one of his books. In fact, they went as far as mobilising the public against the telephone to the annoyance of the emperor.

Finally, according to Paulos Gnogno, resistance was broken when King Menelik called the patriarch and declared his decision to change his religion unless the priests stopped their campaign against the telephone. As the maxim goes, the rest is history.

That happened in the good old days, so to say. Now, fast forward 110 years, and Ethiopian society is standing on the verge of the convergence of many technologies, gripped by fear and suspicion. The reality is that the old telephone box that Menelik brought and that Ethiopian Telecommunications (ETC), now ethio telecom, preserved without innovation or modification, with its monopoly, for 100 years, has outlived its welcome.

There is no doubt that the technology is about to be laid to rest in museums, just like the telegram. With the coming of the fax machine, the telegram became a relic in museums. Now, faxing and the old way of sending letters is being replaced by email, websites, and cloud computing.

Telephone, too, is going through major changes. Now, three technologies are converging. Image, data, and voice come to one handset using Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP). People do not only want to listen to the voices of their loved ones but also want to see each other when communicating.

Psychologists say that 90pc of human communication is expressed through body language. In today’s business environment, businesspeople negotiate and make decisions by communicating through different media. Doctors conduct medical diagnoses using VoIP or other competing technologies. Experts lecture globally through VoIP from the comfort of their office.

Distance is shrinking, and people do not have to be in the same room to have conversations, lectures, and meetings. This technology has been around for more than 10 years in the developed world, and it is becoming the standard communication tool for the day-to-day running of business and personal affairs.

Nowadays, thanks to Third Generation (3G) technology, there is no telephone handset, computer, or laptop on the market without software and a camera to transmit text, voice, and image data.

In the developed world, itemised telephone bills are being phased out and replaced with standard subscription fees. Every telephone company is heading towards providing this converging technology of voice, text, and image, and the technology is now reaching Ethiopia.

Does the choice exist to avoid or boycott this technology?

The answer is no, unless people in Ethiopia refuse to talk to the world.

VoIP appears to be tomorrow’s standard communicating medium to help provide education, healthcare, and efficient public services to a deserving 85 million Ethiopians.

It is unfortunate that, after basking in the glory of the publicity of the Global Economic Forum, which ironically, was transmitted to the world partly through VoIP, the old stereotypical image of Ethiopia has surfaced with a controversial bill reported to be tabled soon.

Even without the chance to read the bill, it can be confidently stated that the media coverage is damaging, and this will obviously scare tourists away. A headline in the Los Angeles Times Business read, “Going to Ethiopia? If you use Skype, you could be there 15 years.”

In the last three weeks, Ethiopia was subjected to many jokes, critical comments, and a serious global petition drive to stop the alleged ban of VoIP communication technology.

This was based on the perception that the Ethiopian Parliament was trying unbundle voice, from text and image data to make one a criminal offence and the others legal.

If that was the intention, in 20 years’ time, people may look back and have a good laugh at it. But, today it can damage investment, tourism, education, and businesses.

The reality is that the technology is converging, and there is no distinction between a telephone handset and a computer.

Today, all email account providers, like Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, and AOL, transmit text, voice, and image data. All of them can make a call to a computer or telephone handset.

Every 3G telephone handset is a small computer, and every computer is a telephone handset. No one can say an iPhone is not a computer. It was made by a computer company, with computer components.

When someone calls an iPhone or Galaxy, will the law see it as a call from a computer to a computer or a telephone handset?

That is why the headline in the global media outlet was a mix of confusion, ridicule, and serious concern. For example, The Atlantic wrote, “Why Does Ethiopia Want to Give People 15 Years in Jail for Using Skype?”

New York Daily News wrote, “A 30-second call using Skype in Ethiopia can land you a 15-year prison sentence, thanks to new legislation passed by the country’s government.”

Despite the recent attempt by the government to clarify the intention of the law, the damage was done by not reacting quickly.

Still, unless the intention is made clear, airlines may start updating their “not to take lists” to Ethiopia. A smartphone loaded with VoIP software may be added to such lists of items, like an illegal drug.

The next issues of quarterly in-flight magazines and travel guidebooks may carry warnings, telling passengers travelling to Ethiopia to be careful with their mobile handsets until the law is fully clarified.

That is why further clarification on the details of the law is needed. VoIP, like the World Wide Web, is going to revolutionise communication.

That is why hundreds of innovative information and communications technology (ICT) companies have been formed to develop a seamless technology to transmit voice and image through the Internet. There are hundreds of companies who have tested technologies and are fighting hard to become the standard operating platform of future communication.

One of the companies that appears to be leading the pack is Skype. Skype provides free software to make a computer serve like a telephone handset.

As result, it was bought by Microsoft for 8.5 billion dollars by the time its future potential became apparent. Now, most computer and mobile phones come with a camera and are loaded with software compatible with VoIP services including Skype.

Technically, it would be hard to unbundle these converging technologies or make a technical distinction between calling to a telephone handset or a computer. It would be difficult to ignore VoIP, and it would be much easier to embrace this new technology to expand education, healthcare, and social services to millions of Ethiopians.

This technology can bring the best experts from all over the world into lecture rooms and the few medical schools in the nation can be aided by hospital operating “theatres.” VoIP can provide medical care to inaccessible parts of the country. It can improve the efficiency of the civil service and open business opportunities to whoever is willing to exploit it.

VoIP can also help potential investment in the ICT sector. The government had planned to setup technology parks to attract investors who would reportedly create about 300,000 jobs.

However, the challenge is how that could be achieved without VoIP. Investment in ICT may not come to Ethiopia if it has to relay on ethio telecom in its current form, which often says, “All lines are busy please try later.”

An analogy would be trying to create an industrial park to manufacture metal, plastic, and cement and pass a law that outlaws the use of electricity. ICT parks without VoIP will only become material for stand-up comedians, not investors.

That is why it is important to assess the potential benefits of VoIP before rushing to conclusions. Above all, it will be a daunting task to unbundle data into its component parts and make one part legal and the other criminal.

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