How One ISP Fulfilled Its Mission to Bring Next-Generation Connectivity to Ethiopia
How do you know you need something you’ve never had? Millions of people around the world live without high-speed broadband service, and they don’t know the impact it can have on their daily lives. At Ethiopian ISP WebSprix, we saw an opportunity to change that in our country, revolutionizing how Ethiopians connect to the world and setting an example for other developing countries.
I joined WebSprix in 2016 as CEO. I grew up in Ethiopia, obtaining my first degree here and teaching at Addis Ababa University, Faculty of Engineering, and later the School of Information Studies for Africa (SISA). Even when I moved to the United States for further study and work, I always felt a deep connection to Ethiopia and was troubled by its significant connectivity gap.
Six years ago, connectivity in Ethiopia was poor: for a population of around 105 million at the time, the number of broadband connections was less than 40,000. Those connections were mainly big enterprises with multiple connections, so a bank with 1,000 branches counted as 1,000 connections. Yet the number of broadband connections was low, comparatively speaking, and the average bandwidth per user was also very low since connectivity was expensive.
As the incoming CEO of WebSprix, I saw the chance to use the knowledge I had accumulated through years of working in service provider environments. I felt a duty to improve connectivity, and I also saw a business opportunity to fulfill a need by bringing down the cost of broadband.
The Importance of High-Speed Connectivity in Developing Areas
In many places, high-speed broadband is taken for granted, in some places it's a luxury, and in other places, it’s a desperate need. Developing countries, including Ethiopia, often have very limited resources. Technology can help stretch those resources and lower the costs of resource allocation.
For example, textbooks are expensive, so it’s common for students to share books here. If we could replace those paper textbooks with digital ones, we could get more reading material and educational content to our students and enable everyone to have their own copy.
Ethiopia also has a limited number of medical specialists. There are none in many remote areas, and individuals have to travel vast distances at considerable time and expense to access care. With videoconferencing and telemedicine, we could share those limited resources with remote locations. People could get diagnosed and treated faster, and specialists could assess the needs of a much greater area much more efficiently.
Another significant hurdle is low bandwidth. Many of our farmers have literacy challenges, making it difficult to learn something new by reading. It is easier to keep farmers up to date on the latest agricultural practices through video training rather than relying on textbooks or low-bandwidth means like email (the average bandwidth was around 1Mbps). Even then, materials and connectivity are expensive, putting them out of reach of many Ethiopians. But without the ability to download or stream this content quickly and across vast distances, farmers have few options.
In these cases, connectivity is more critical for developing countries than their developed counterparts. We knew we needed higher bandwidth at a lower cost. We needed to build a Tier 1 core network in Ethiopia.
Pushing Boundaries and Adopting Next-Gen Technology
WebSprix used to be a small, niche business that provided connectivity to limited areas using fiber and fixed wireless, IPTV, value added services, as well as providing enterprise solutions to the financial sector. But because of the high price, we primarily served the needs of businesses and high-income earners. We also had the challenge of navigating a monopolistic environment that until recently was controlled by Ethio Telecom. To turn my vision into a reality, we had to pave our own way and convince the authorities and incumbent operators to work together to expand broadband connectivity.
To start, we had to push as much bandwidth on a single fiber as possible, which meant leasing fiber from the power company. Doing so would enable us to boost bandwidth while keeping costs low. When it came to the design, we opted for the Routed Optical Networking solution, which helped us deploy the latest router, optical, and design innovations.
The traditional optical approach would require two different layers, routing and optical. Managing two different layers is costly, and the bandwidth provisioning isn’t as granular. Routed Optical Networking makes the network much simpler and easier to manage. We used to have different types of traffic, but now that everything is consolidated around IP, there’s no need to have an additional layer to segregate IP from other traffic. And because this is a greenfield project, we don’t have to worry about legacy systems.
We chose to partner with Cisco for this project. I’d worked with Cisco for 15 years before coming to WebSprix. Part of this work included contributing to their Evolved Packet Network 5.0 program, so I was deeply familiar with their products, the routing technology, and the product roadmap. We looked at other solutions, but the fact that Cisco had acquired Acacia Communications—the leader in the coherent pluggable optics space and a requirement for Routed Optical Networking—was significant. No other company was capable of delivering a solution like this except for Cisco, so we chose their 400G ZR/ZR+ optics and Cisco 8200 Series routers.
Pairing Sustainable Infrastructure with Green Energy
Cisco’s Routed Optical Networking solution benefits us from both a CapEx and OpEx perspective. The traditional approach would’ve required us to use additional optical layer equipment, increasing upfront costs and reducing flexibility. Over the long term, having a single management system requires fewer people to manage, reducing overhead. By my estimate, between capital and management savings, Cisco’s Routed Optical Networking costs 30–40% less than traditional optical networking.
The power requirement of Routed Optical Networking is negligible compared to other systems and equipment in our facilities, and using the Cisco 8000 series puts us well ahead of the trends in the region. The typical system power requirement is 2.25 watts/100G for the Cisco 8201-32FH, and that efficiency helps us dramatically reduce our power footprint in our facilities. Power in Ethiopia is either hydroelectric or geothermal, but sometimes we suffer from power outages, during which we turn to diesel generators. The efficiency of our new Cisco equipment helps us reduce our power footprint in our facilities and also reduces the size and cost of a backup diesel generator, helping us create more sustainable infrastructure.
Sustainability has become a priority in Ethiopia. An example is the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD), Africa's largest hydropower project. When fully operational, GERD's generating capacity will exceed 6,000 megawatts—close to doubling Ethiopia's power supply. Because of the available green power and the telecom deregulation we have seen in the past few years, major data centers are being built in the capital. This will further drive the connectivity and boundary requirements, and WebSprix will be well positioned to take advantage of that opportunity.
The Impact of Changing Legislation
Selecting the technology was the easy part. The existing connectivity landscape in Ethiopia was a big obstacle. We worked in partnership with Ethio Telecom because they had a monopoly, and we were not allowed to have our own transport system.
Fortunately, the law has changed since the project started. The telecom sector has become deregulated. There is a new full-service operator, and the expectation to license a third. The government is also granting new ISP licenses, including one to WebSprix.
These changes have significantly impacted the sector. The incumbent has responded by improving and expanding their services because they don’t want to lose market share. That competition leads to better options for consumers. And there’s more opportunity for other players to contribute to the growth of high-speed broadband services.
Realizing the Value of Connectivity
The project is well underway, and we expect the bulk of the equipment that can be provisioned by new automation features to come online shortly. Our agreement with the electric utility allows us to lease their long-haul fiber and share their electric poles to lay fiber across the country, so much of the fiber is already there. It’s just a matter of activating the fiber, which means installing smaller facilities to place our systems, like amplifiers and routed optical systems, along the path of the long-haul backbone.
As disastrous as the pandemic has been, it’s helped people realize the importance of connectivity. In addition to our core connectivity, we are also building out the last mile with fiber to the home (FTTH) and apartment buildings. In areas already touched by our new high-speed broadband, people can now work remotely and reduce their exposure to COVID-19. High-speed broadband enabled students to continue their studies remotely, too.
WebSprix's connections are more stable, as they are fiber based and well engineered. This leads to a better customer experience, and we have already heard positive feedback from customers.
As our capacity grows, more private enterprises and public institutions like schools, medical facilities, and housing organizations want to use this high-bandwidth connectivity to fuel their digital transformation. This digitization will further connect Ethiopians to the global market. It will increase ecommerce, bring banking spaces and healthcare online, and drive innovations such as IoT-driven agriculture and smart cities.
I’ve always liked the challenge of exposing people to new things, and as challenging as this project has been, it’s also fun. In driving connectivity in new areas of Ethiopia, we will not only connect Ethiopians to the rest of the world but also bring 21st-century services to them. Despite the odds, Ethiopia is investing in our own technological development and sustainable infrastructure to enrich the lives of our people.