Understanding Eritrea’s Exceptionally Limited Internet Access

There are generally two sides to how Eritrean ICT engagement are portrayed online. One focuses on how, despite high Internet costs, rural communities are getting community centers, digital libraries, and computer classes. In other words, feel-good stories of how mobile access is helping spur local economic growth and educational opportunity. The other bulk of the discourse on Eritrean ICT analyzes how social media enables Eritreans to express their opinions of the government of President Isaias Afewerki. This in itself is challenging to dissect considering the interaction of Eritreans living abroad with the few residing at home with the means to access the Internet. Among Eritreans living domestically, there is a dichotomy between bold activists and those who are afraid to speak out against the regime.
First, an online snapshot. A recent article for Bloomberg Businessweek is a treasure trove of facts about how few Eritreans access the Internet. The article, like most, isn’t definitive, but the bottom line is that communication in the country is extremely limited. As always, subscriber numbers, numbers of users, and costs should be interpreted with some uncertainty. Still, all signs point to a nation with few options for Internet access. Even the repressive government doesn’t need to explicitly censor online communications since such a small share of the population routinely uses the Internet, or even a mobile phone, for that matter. At least for now.
Statistics from the Bloomberg Businessweek article aren’t necessarily current as of July 2014, but the central point is that Internet access is hard to come by and is excruciatingly expensive:

  • As low as 6% of Eritreans have a mobile phone and hardly 1% go online (ITU 2012).
  • Customers must pay at least US$46 to get an active mobile subscription. Then, voice credits cost US$3.65.
  • Eritreans fulfilling compulsory national service cannot own a mobile phone.
  • Despite its coastal location, Eritrea does not have a submarine cable landing station.
  • Officially, there are 146 fixed broadband subscriptions in the entire country.
  • Dial-up home access costs US$200 per month.
  • There are 100 Internet cafes in the country – most have fewer than 10 computers.
  • An hour of Internet cafe access costs US$1.34 (7 loaves of bread).

Those who do access the Internet are careful about which websites they access. Aaron Berhane, co-founder of the first independent newspaper in Eritrea (now living in Canada), has described fear as a key factor preventing dissent from spreading online:
Unfortunately, in Eritrea, the Internet service is very slow. There are 5, maybe 6 Internet cafes in the capital city. It isn’t allowed to have Internet access in your home. So even if they want, they can’t afford it. And the Internet cafes are monitored by security agents, so people often don’t feel comfortable enough to read or open any website. So if one individual opens a website of the opposition, he would definitely be followed, interrogated, [and] summoned to the police station. So, out of fear, many people don’t check those opposition websites – so it is difficult to say the Internet would help our community. And unfortunately, illiteracy is still a barrier, and there is no electricity 3-4 days a week. There are so many factors at work.
In general, the only official ICT news out of Eritrea within the past year has to do with a handful of schools/community centers getting connected, continued 3G network roll-out, and the gradual process to privatize state-owned EriTel. A hefty share of information is dispersed via state-run EriTV, which can be found on YouTube. Such news is welcomed, but simply bringing mobile access to an under-served town isn’t going to immediately bring change. For one, mobile service is often unreliable. Electricity remains a challenge, even with generators or solar power that can (in theory) power a community learning center. Teaching ICT skills is yet another issue that doesn’t just come with technology.
Of course, the Eritrean government could be blamed for purposely not investing in ICT infrastructure in order to limit the opportunity for greater social awareness. It’s reasonable to think that the government to-date has been happy with the revenue from its telecoms monopoly. At the same time, better infrastructure is essential if the country’s economy (and important sectors like mining and tourism) are to improve.
Eritrea’s youth carry the potential to put an end to the impunity that limits Eritrean development. A youth movement in 2011, known as “Freedom Friday,” relied on social media for organization. However, the campaign still required those organizing in the diaspora to call those living in Eritrea to get the word out. Today, a similar movement would require cooperation from home and abroad, through international calls and social media.
Accordingly, it will be people and strategy – not technology – that brings change to Eritrea. Social media can set an agenda for national debate but it alone can’t bring change on the ground. The challenge is how to mobilize given the limited access (and fear of punishment). Moreover, should Eritreans living abroad dictate what happens within Eritrea or will their wishes only lead to further strife? Such are the dilemmas brought about by exceptionally limited Internet access within Eritrea.