How to do an Internet connection that is right for Eritreans.

August, 1999

Eritrea Technical Exchange, 
110 Clayton St., 
San Francisco, CA, 94117 


Why the Internet is late in coming
Motivation: Is Internet good for Eritrea?
Background: Email in Eritrea
Questions of Equality
Analysis of Ethiopia's Internet Problems
Internet Connections: How do they work?
    Cost of the Bandwidth
    Types of Internet Services
Market Analysis: Who can pay how much, for what?
Service Products: Satisfying Customers and Recovering Costs.
    Current Products and Services
    Potential Service Levels, Products, and Prices
         Cheaper E-mail
         Browsing Locally Available Web Content
         Producing National Intranet Services
         Real-time Browsing of the International Internet
         Other Services: Voice, Electronic Info-publication, and more...
Internet System Description: Maximizing Efficiency
    Customizing with Linux
    Multiport Serial Cards and Dial-up Access
    PPP Daemons and Scripts
    Apache HTTP server
    SQUID web cache
    Tigrigna and Arabic scripts
    Developing Local Content
    CGI and Customized, Interactive Web pages

Why the Internet is so late in coming to Eritrea.

Eritrea will be one of the last countries in the world to have a live Internet connection. This is largely due to three factors: scarce resources, a small population, and a cautious nationalist development style.

Eritrea has one of the lowest per-capita income levels in the world, variably estimated between $150 and $250 per person per year. The literacy rate is about 20%, and the local languages are Arabic and Tigrigna which have scripts that are not easy to use on computers as yet. The scarce resources means that there are few computers (perhaps 10,000 to 30,000 in the country---less than one for every 100 people), few people can use them, and there little money to pay for Internet services. Secondly, by having a small population of about 3 to 4 million people, and a small computer market, there is not the demand necessary to have a large Internet services market that allows providers to develop economies of scale.  And third, with Internet services being potentially expensive, and with the country short of resources, the government is hestitant to subsidize advanced communications infrastructure that will be used by very few Eritreans.  The Eritrean government wants to make sure that Internet development contributes to the national development process rather than using up scarce technical and financial resources.

As a result of the above-mentioned challenges, a favorable policy and economic context for Internet services is just not available. The markets don't have much money or demand for Internet services, and the government is justifiably skeptical of the national benefits of Internet development.

But in spite of questions regarding the true benefits of Internet, at the beginning of 1999, the Eritrean Communications department solicited license applications from local businesses for Internet service provision.  In addition, in August 1999, the Eritrean government signed a memorandum of understanding with the U.S. Agency for International Development regarding assistance for the establishment of Internet in Eritrea through the Leland Initiative.  But even with official sanction and support of Internet development, there are many details and difficulties with regards to actually bringing effective services to Eritreans.  This article discusses some of these more detailed issues and challenges.

Motivation: Is Internet good for Eritrea?

In order to properly bring Internet connectivity to Eritrea it is necessary to first be clear on the reasons for Internet connectivity and Internet services.

For many Internet users there is no question that the Internet is a good thing.  It is not even a debateable issue for them. The average information addicted netizen, will say "Of course the Internet is good for Eritrea...It brings information, and information is power and money...which Eritrea needs!" While for many in Eritrea the question seems irrelevant: 95% of Eritreans have no computer access, and even if they had computer access they may never afford Internet access. So who cares?

The assumption of the analysis in this paper, is that there are three requirements which if met, will make Internet services feasible and highly desireable in Eritrea.

The first requirement is that Internet is a good investment: That is if makes good business sense and makes money without subsidy, then it is just plain good business. If Internet services make money on their own without any subsidy, then they are contributing to Eritrea's economic growth and development.

The second requirement is if the Internet is accessible to almost any Eritrean with access to a computer and a modem no matter what their economic level, then it is good for Eritrea.  If information resources are more available to Eritreans, then it decreases the monopoly power that foreigners and foreign institutions have on information and information resources.  This makes Eritreans and Eritrean businesses more competitive relative to their foreign counterparts.

The third requirement for Internet in Eritrea is that it strikes an optimal balance between price and performance for the average user--delivering reasonably good service at a low price if possible.

We assume that if these three requirements are met, then there will be a consensus that Internet connectivity is good for Eritrea.

(There are other concerns like people accessing objectionable or pornographic content. These problems are very easy to solve technically by setting access restrictions at the international connection. Policy is more of the question with those issues)

We of the Eritrea Technical Exchange (a non-profit support project in California, USA), wish to present for Eritrea and Eritreans, some of the details of  how the Internet can and will be brought to Eritrea.  The ETE is working to assist Internet connectivity in a way that will completely fulfill the three requirements and resolve most questions and concerns about Internet access in Eritrea.

The main innovations of the activities that we are supporting include the the following:

    1. Optimized price/performance for different users by configuring and offering different types of Internet access services with different performance and cost features.
    2. Utilization of Internet service priority, caching, and mirroring in order to efficiently utilize the bandwidth of the international data connection.
    3. Emphasizing the efficiency of use of locally produced and cached content rather than emphasizing the need for low-cost international connectivity (though low cost connectivity will help of course).
    4. Development of local content including local-language content and customized national information services.

Background: Email in Eritrea

The Eritrea technical exchange currently provides the best, most efficient, and cost effective email connectivity services for Eritrea. Even though we utilize long distance phone calls that cost up to US$1.50 per minute, email is exchanged with Eritrea at an operational cost of less than three cents per page of text (retail prices in Eritrea are of course higher). This is a remarkable feat, especially considering that it costs nearly 100 times as much to send a 1-page fax from Eritrea to the U.S. The low cost and efficiency of Eritrea's email system has made it fairly accessible to a wide audience that includes hundreds of (perhaps over one thousand) users. These users include university students, private individuals, business people, and government officials (including the news and information agencies).

Our organizational model for such email development combines foreign volunteer technical support, and local commercial operation of the system by national businesses. A second component of the model, has been to use--at least initially--some margin from the commercial sale of email services to subsidize access for public or selected governmental institutions.

At first, there were doubts of whether or not email was good or even legal in Eritrea. But the success and efficiency of the email system in practice has resolved these doubts. Some of this involved showing people throughout the public sector that email was a good and useful service. This was done by providing people with free email accounts for a period so that they could see its benefits.

Like with email,  Internet-mediated information access and distribution is several times more efficient and cost effective for certain types of applications.  And once Internet is demonstrated in a way that is sensitive to the national interests of Eritrea, there will be consensus that Internet is good for the country.

Questions of Equality

But in spite of its success, there remain valid concerns regarding the distribution and access to computer communications services in Eritrea. Very few people have email access. And Internet access may be much more expensive than simple email. It is not clear that the existence of Internet will benefit more than a very small group of rich foreigners, and large businesses. How can the Eritrean people benefit from such an expensive and high-tech undertaking?

Furthermore, Eritrea may take pause from Ethiopia's experience with Internet development. The service there was soon oversubscribed, and it has been plagued by slow performance, high cost, and low efficiency.

Analysis of Ethiopia's Internet Problems

Fundamentally, the problems experienced in Ethiopia are a reflection of the distortions in the local economy and the inequalities in people's incomes. The income disparity between the poorest sector of the user base (for example University students) and the richest sectors (foreign businesses) is a factor of one hundred. So an unhappy compromise must be made between cost and performance. This compromise satisfies almost nobody. The foreigners who are willing to pay more for good performance, can't get the performance they demand, because the average user can't pay that price. The average potential user may be willing access the system only at night, or with low priority, but they cannot afford access because the price is too high. So everybody pays a relatively high price for something with relatively poor performance. And the system is structured so that they have no other choice except to make an expensive international phone call to an outside service provider.

The Ethiopian solution to the Internet access problem is far from optimal. The reason is that average price/performance is poor, and there is only a few price/performance options in an economically very diverse market. The solution is to increase the overall performance of the system (through efficiency improvements), and to provide a wide economic range of Internet use options for the local market. These solutions can and should be included in Eritrea's implementation of Internet.

Internet Connections: How do they work?

Before we go into the details of how to make an Internet link work well, we need to review the basics of how an Internet link works.

The Internet is a type of Wide Area Network or WAN. What a WAN does is deliver packets of information or data to potentially distant computers over a wide range of interconnected computer networks. These networks may be of widely different types. But technical standards and rules have been developed for the delivery of such packets. These standards make the efficient operation of WAN's possible. The standard or protocol used on the Internet is called TCP/IP which stands for the Transmission Control Protocol/ Internet Protocol.

Computers can be either directly or indirectly connected to the Internet. Indirectly connected computers use an intermediary, or "proxy" computer to get data from the Internet on their behalf. Directly connected computers must have a unique IP (or Internet Protocol) address which is a series of four numbers, each between 0 and 255 noninclusive.

National Internet connections must have at a minimum two components. One is the local Internet Service Provider that provides the different servers and computers that the users use for calling in, storing and retrieving email, hosting web sites, etc. And the other is the Network Backbone Provider. This is the institution that provides the international data connection, and central network management.

For Eritrea, the international connection can come in several forms. One form may be an international leased line such as a 64 kilobit/second voice channel, or a VSAT connection. Alternatively the International connection can be provided through a simple dial-up connection using regular phone lines, or a roaming dialup connection through an international ISP that provides such roaming services (such as iPass).

Cost of the Bandwidth

The different types of connectivity have different bandwidth costs. The following table summarizes these costs.
Data Transfer Method
Cost per Minute
Cost per Megabyte
Phone lines
$1 - $2
$10 - $20
Roaming Services
$0.25 - $0.5
$4 - $10 
Private VSAT (128 kbps)
$0.20 - $0.40
$0.5 - $2
Lease Voice Channel (64 kbps)
$0.05 - $0.10
$0.4 - $1

In calculating these costs, we make the following assumptions.  For phone lines, we have about a 2.5 kilobyte per second transfer rate at $1.50 per minute, which leads to 400 seconds or 6.7 minutes of transfer which is a little over $10 per Megabyte. Call set-up and other inefficiencies can increase this to $20 per Megabyte.

For international roaming services we assume a low quality connection of about 1 kilobyte per second (or less) which means 1000 seconds or 17 minutes of transfer is needed which is $4 at the low end and up to $10 per Megabyte if there are other inefficiencies such as a degraded connection.

For private VSAT, the cost would be $10,000 to $20,000 per month for a 128 kbps private connection typically. This is about $0.23 per minute.  But at most such a connection would be used at 30% of capacity so we would get a transfer rate of  1000 Kilobytes /[(128 kbps/8bits/byte) X 30%] =  200 seconds or 3.3 minutes/Megabyte transfered. This means that for a well-utilized line the cost would be about $0.6 per Megabyte transfered.

For a leased international voice channel, it is assumed that such a line would be provided on a cost recovery basis by the telecom authority. With such an assumption the line would be about $2000/month, or about $0.05 per minute.  A 64 kbps line can download at about 8 kilobytes per second but for a leased connection it would likely be used at less than 30% capacity so it would take 1000 Kilobytes/(8 kilobytes/sec X 30%) = 400 sec = 7 minutes or $0.35 per Megabyte.

So it can be seen that depending on the type of international data connections that is available, and the efficiency with which it is used, the cost of transfering data from the Internet to Eritrea can vary by a factor of 50.

Currently, for the email system, the bandwidth costs account for approximately 30% of the retail price of the email services in Eritrea.  Other costs are effectively the technical service, capital recovery, and administrative operational costs of system administration and service provision.

Types of Internet Services

Different types of Internet use make very different demands on the network. Electronic mail (email) makes relatively few demands on the network. The data volumes are relatively small (about 20 Megabytes per day for Eritrea as of August 1999). And if it takes an hour or two for a message to be delivered, it is generally OK. It is easy for the network to provide slow data transfer for low volumes of data.

Meanwhile web-browsing can make significant demands on the network. And a single page of information may be 0.1 Megabytes or more. Furthermore most people will not want to wait for more than half a minute to minute for the information to be displayed on their screens. Only 200 people downloading one page each can conceivably require as much data transfer as the entire country's email system in one day. And each user may wish to have their data transfered at a rate of 2-3 kilobytes per second. This can make tremendous demands on a network which has a limited international connection.

For international web browsing over a limited international connection, one must have either very few users, or very slow data transfer (i.e. it may take several minutes for a page with a lot of graphics to be displayed). This is the fundamental delemma of Internet access in remote locations with limited telcommunications infrastructure.

Market Analysis: Who can pay how much, and for what?

Our basic goal in this analysis is to use market and cost analysis analysis methods to see how local businesses can  implement an equitable social objective: "From each according to his ability (to pay for services) to each according to his need (for access to Internet services)."  While this slogan may historically have a lot of progandistic baggage associated with it, the idea that those who can pay more (for high quality) should pay more than the needy but poorer and less pickey sections of the market is just basic fairness.

Eritrea's computer communications market is diverse. At one extreme are international business people who need to connect at the Internet at speeds which are only limited by the modem in their laptop. At the other end are poor students for whom 50 Nacfa (US$ 10) per month is a big expense.

For business people, their alternative is making an international phone call to Europe or the U.S. and connecting to a service provider there. Such a call would cost $2-$3 per minute originating from Eritrea and $1-$2 per minute originating from outside Eritrea. On such a connection, a user can obtain transfer speeds of 2-4 kilobytes/sec. Their main requirement of an Eritrean Internet service, would be U.S.-level service at a price that is cheaper than the alternative of making an international call to a foreign ISP.   If our target price is 1/2 the cost of an international dial-up connection, then  $0.50 to $1.00 per minute is a potentially acceptable price for top quality Internet access.

For the poor students, their main market demand is acceptable access at rock bottom prices.  They would probably want at least a few hours of Internet use for their hard-earned 50 Nacfa. If we say this corresponds to a little over 10 minutes per day, then we have 300 minutes for $6, or $0.02 per minute of use. And if they get a few hundred pages of information per month, they will probably be pretty happy.

Therefore, the 'ability to pay' for the different components of the Eritrean market varies by a factor by more than an order of magnitude. This is simply a reflection of the fact that per-capita incomes in Eritrea are less than 1/100-th what they are in the wealthier, more technologically developed countries. Ideally, an Eritrean Internet can satisfy the different demands of both expatriot and local users.

Service Products: Satisfying Customers and Recovering Costs.

Current Products and Services

Currently, in Eritrea there is only one Internet service product: E-mail.  There is a two-tiered pricing system with selected government institutions receiving a low service-level connection for free and other customers receiving email services for about $15 to $20 per month from private service providers.  The free connections provide crucial services for select government ministries that do not have a budget to pay, and represent a couple percent of total email volume, about 5% to 10% of total users/institutions and about 10% of bandwidth costs.  The Research and Training center of the Department of Energy provides service and support at no cost to the serviced ministries.  The national university receives services on a lumped service contract with one of the private providers.  There is no public service to secondary schools, nor any service to public libraries as of yet.

Potential Service Levels, Products, and Prices

With the arrival of Internet connectivity, there should be both a decrease in bandwidth costs, and a diversification of the potential information services and service levels that can be provided to customers/users.

Cheaper E-mail

The first potential benefit of cheaper international bandwidth for national Internet development will the the possiblity of decreasing the cost of basic email services.  This means that a basic email account will have an international data transfer cost of a few dollars  per month.  It should be possible to therefore offer an email-only account with little or no technical support for about $5 per month or lower, while offering email-only accounts with technical support for about $10 per month. These price levels are comparable to those offered in the U.S. for such accounts.

There will be two main private sector impediments to cheap email-only accounts.  The first and most important will be that supporting such services will compete with full-service Internet accounts for the technical support resources within local ISP's.  The overhead and profit margins on the full-service accounts will be higher than for low-end e-mail only accounts.  Given this fact, local ISP's may or may not offer such services even if it is strictly economical to do so.

Especially for local ISP's that make the commitment to a leased data line, their primary objective will be to develop a revenue stream that can support the continuing cost of a leased line.  If they can charge $20 - $30 for a full-service connection, they will put a premium on making sure there are enough full service accounts to provide their revenue stream. It therefore may be in their interest to shut-out low cost email accounts even if  75% of the potential low-cost e-mail users can't afford a full service account.  The key factor in whether or not very low cost e-mail access is provided in Eritrea will depend on there being enough competition between ISP's so that at least one of them finds it profitable to provide services to the low-cost email market.

Over the long term it will be in the interest of local ISP's to provide some very low cost access services and to provide free access services to students in educational institutions. Market development in Eritrea for computer communications services is growing exponentially with a doubling time of 6 months to a year.  Providing low-cost entry into this market will allow more people to develop experience in computer network use.  The lack of experience by local users in computer networks is the primary limitation for local demand development. This is because with its very low level of computerization, and its reliance on slower paper-based organization, most Eritrean organizations can potentially reap very economical benefits from increased levels of computerization.  The lack of skilled personnel is the primary impediment.

Therefore, given rapid, exponential growth of computer comunications markets (even in Eritrea), small increases in market expansion now will have exponentially large impacts several years down the line.

Multi-lingual Email and Internet

Another major barrier to Internet and e-mail use in Eritrea is the language barrier.  It is actually currently possible to do e-mail in Tigrigna and Arabic, but the methods for doing this are not fully known in Eritrea.

Hyper-Text Mark-up Language (HTML) is rapidly becoming a platform-independent standard for formatted documents on the Internet, and this language has multilingual utilities built into its standards.  HTML is the computer language in which most Internet content is written, and most e-mail programs are now capable of writing and displaying messages with HTML formatting.  In HTML there is a font specification command that sets the font or script in which the message is displayed.  This is the method by which email messages are sent in Chinese, Thai, and a great variety of other languages. The exact same methods apply to sending messages and producing web content in Tigrigna and Arabic.

In addition to the fonts, one needs a method for typing the script into the computer.  This involves the use of a program that remaps the keyboard to produce the proper letter encodings corresponding to what is being typed in by the user. Several programs for doing this in Windows are available in Eritrea and Ethiopia, including Yada (by Tfanus Enterprises) Ge'ez Gate and a host of others.  Software for composing messages costs a significant amount ($90 for Yada for example), but the fonts for displaying the result are free.  This means that it is currently possible and perfectly feasible to produce local-language web content.  Web sites that have this content, can also provide an FTP (file transfer protocol) link for downloading the fonts so that anyone can view the content for free.

Local language email and web content has a couple of national advantages for Eritrea.  The first advantage is that it makes the information in local languages more accessible to Eritreans who speak and read primarily Arabic or Tigrigna.  This can dramatically expand the relevance of Internet services.

The second national advantage of local language Internet content, is that it decreases the competative advantage of foreigners with regards to utilizing locally produced information content.  One disadvantage of producing content for the Internet is that the result is often that the information is more accessible to someone abroad than it is for someone in the country in which it was produced.  On the other hand, reports in Tigrigna and Arabic will be easier to for Eritreans to write than English reports.  And also, once posted on the web, it will be far easier for Eritreans to read and interpret these documents.  Foreigners who want to utilize this information will likely have to hire Eritreans to translate and interpret the documents for them.

Browsing Locally Available Web Content

The cheapest dial-up information service that can be provided by ISP's is a dial-up local web browsing service that does not bring any new information over International lines except by special order from customers.  For such types of customers, they dial into a sever that has a large amount of web content on its local hard disk.  The cost of such a server is perhaps a couple thousand dollars, and one such server can provide services to 8 - 32 phone lines.  With more than 10-50 customers per phone line, the capital cost per customer is potentially as low as $10 per customer as long as the marginal cost of new content is near zero.

A near-zero marginal cost of  web content for these accounts is attained by limitting content to what has been retrieved by other users at other times.  The storage cost of this content is nearly zero since the cost of a 10 Gigabyte hard drive is only about $200 or $0.20 per Megabyte.  This per-megabyte storage cost is very small compared to the cost of transferring the data over the international data lines.

Producing National Intranet Services

Wide area networking can also possibly contribute to the more efficient distribution of information within Eritrea.  Intranet services in Eritrea can contribute to more efficient information dissemination, database management services, and intra-national administration and reporting.

Several government organs are responsible for providing information services to other ministries, local governments, and the public.  Some of these include:  Meteorology services who are responsible for weather reports and forecasts to other ministries and agencies, the Department of Energy which is responsible for energy and electricity system standards, the Ministry of Agriculture which is responsible for agricultural forecasting and the distribution of agricultural inputs and extension support services, and the Ministry of Construction which is responsible for managing and approving construction projects.  All of these agencies could use local Intranet services to provide an alternative means of publishing reports and updates. In many cases, publishing documents on the Eritrean Intranet or making them available for download will be cheaper and easier for many types of constituents.   Many documents are prepared on computer (often in MS Word), and a site that allows such documents to be downloaded can be constructed in a matter of minutes on an existing server.

Also, if the Internet becomes popular amongst Eritrean ministries and both public and private organizations, certain information such as weather reports, forecasts, and crop status which is useful for a wide range of productive institutions, could be more easily obtained by surfing the local web than by visiting the relevant ministry and asking for a printed report which may be expensive.  National Intranet distribution of some information may be more effective than current paper distribution methods in some cases.

Another application of local Intranet services is to allow local organizations to engage in networked data collection and information administration activities. A dial-up line to an organizational data entry and retrieval interface could be useful for a wide range of local organizations.   This is another service that can be more fully developed with local Intranet development.

Real-time Browsing of the International Internet

Another service that will be one of the high priorities of Internet development in Eritrea will be live browsing of the International Internet.  Live, direct,  international Internet browsing will be the most expensive computer communications service of Eritrea's Internet/Intranet.   Live web browsing is what most people think of when one talks about Internet in Eritrea, but it should be reserved for only the most important information, or for those who can pay the high costs of a live connection.

A low speed connection with download speeds of about 0.5 kilobytes per second will cost at least $0.25 per minute while a higher speed connection with download speeds of over 4 kilobytes per second will cost over $1 per minute. In addition, 24 hour-per-day real-time browsing will be one of the last services to arrive since it is one of the most expensive services to support.  But for the average user 50% to 80% of web content will already be available on a local proxy-server, so for many users there will the the 'appearance' of real-time Internet access even when the international Internet connection is congested.

Other Services: Voice, Electronic Info-publication, and more....

The variety of computer information and communications services that are offered by local ISP's are essentially limited by only their imagination and the technical human resources needed to maintain them.

Internet and national Intranet services are perfectly capable of providing multi-lingual, voice, sound, and video publication and distribution services at reasonable cost.   Which of many possible services are actually marketable in the Eritrean context remains to be seen.

Just to cite on example, it would be perfectly feasible to send voice recordings internationally as email attachments. For example when efficiently compressed, voice content requires only 8 kilobytes per second of sound. This means that one minute of recorded voice can be sent in 480 kilobytes.  This means than when the per Megabyte cost of data transfers drops below about $4, it becomes more economical to send voice recordings via email or Internet than it does to send then over phone lines.  This opens up the potential of sending voice recordings over the Eritrean Internet.  And if done right, this is a service that all Eritreans could enjoy.

Internet System Description: Maximizing Efficiency

Efficient Internet services in Eritrea will need customized configurations and specialized software tools.  These tools include the use of the highly customizable Linux operating system, multi-port serial cards,  PPP daemons and scripts, apache HTTP server software, SQUID web cache, Common Graphics Interface (CGI) scripts written in Perl that interact with customized web forms, the SMAIL mail transport agent, UUCP over dial-up and TCP, a customized batched, compressed transport that we call UUCBSMTP, and Tigrigna and Arabic language script utilities for clients.

It should be noted that other technical solutions besides what is being described here exist. In particular, both Microsoft and Sun Microsystems provide commercial computer networking solutions for ISP's.  But given the Eritrean desire for self sufficiency and the need to preserve precious foreign exchange dollars, it is likely that the free software solutions that the ETE is promoting and developing for use with inexpensive PC's will out-compete standard commercial solutions based on Windows NT or Sun servers.

Customizing with Linux

Detailed customization of Internet servers at low cost is generally not available with commercial Windows NT or Sun Microsystems servers.  ETE therefore promotes the use of the Linux operating system in order to provide economical, highly customized, and efficient transport of data over expensive data links.

Linux is free, and installs readily on any personal computer with a 386 processor or above.  Recently, a fairly user friendly release of Linux called Redhat has become popular and allows one to install the system fairly simply. For more detailed information on the Linux operating system the reader should refer to more definitive websites such as

Multiport Serial Cards and Dial-up Ports

Multiport serial cards together with a bank of phone lines that are configured in a 'hunt group' provide a cheap and efficient means of computer dial-up access to Internet services.

 A hunt group is a collection of several phone lines that can be accessed with one phone number.  At the telephone company, the switch is configured to attempt to connect to the phone lines in sequence.  If the first number is busy the switch automatically switches the call to the next available line.  Hunt group phone line configuations are currently available in Eritrea and are currently being used by local ISP's for dial-up access.  The hunt group configuration allows fewer phone lines to be used at greater average capacity for call-in users, using existing phone infrastructure at greater capacity and efficiency.

The current volume of computer communications customers in Eritrea is still in the hundreds.  The number may double every six months to a year, meaning that for the next several years the number of customers will remain below a few thousand.   So assuming that up to 1,000 customers may use one ISP and about half of these use the connection for web surfing in addition to email, we can calculate the approximate number of phone lines required.  If each web-surfing customer uses the service an average of half an hour during an eight hour day (this low use volume per customer can be enforced by having a significant connection time fee) then an ISP might need as much as 30 phone lines.   Over the long-term a substantial capacity for running multiple phone lines into Eritrean ISP's will need to be developed.

At earlier stages of development, ISP's can configure a server with 4 to 32 dial-in  phone lines  by using a multiport serial card that can connect to a  bank of external modems (see for example: ).  The modem that we have had the best experience with in Eritrea is the U.S. Robotics Courier V.Everything modem.   The larger, more expensive (about $200) V.Everything modems appear to have better performance in the face of long international line latency, high phone noise levels, and phone line unreliability.  When the number of phone lines coming into an ISP approaches several dozen, then more advanced technologies for bringing bundles of phone lines (or digital phone lines) may need to be investigated. But for the time being., multiport serial cards and individual external modems are easy to implement and can be customized in their operational qualities and parameters in Linux.

PPP Daemons and Scripts

The typical dial-up networking protocol that is used for connecting to the Internet over phone lines is the Point to Point Protocol (PPP).   The server-side programs that manage the PPP connection for both dial-up users and for the server connection to outside Internet are becoming more fully featured.

Some of the features of a PPP 'daemon' program that allow for more efficient utilization of dial-up connections includes on-demand features that allow the server to make an international network connection only when it is actually needed by an ISP's customers or a business/government institution, a configurable activity time-out, and the ability to run completely customized scripts at the beginning and end of the connection session.  Customized connection establishment and termination scripts allow for complete control and setting up logging and billing systems along with access restrictions for different types of user services.

Apache HTTP Server

Apache HTTP Server is a set of software that allows individuals to set up web servers freely under Linux and other operating systems.  This allows any business or ISP in Eritrea to configure a web server with a regular PC (and therefore a cost of as little as $1000).  This web server software is efficient can be fully customized allowing the same machine to service several web sites at the same time, and allowing for the use customized error messages, and dynamic web page scripts and programs.  Training ISP's and computer businesses in Eritrea in the configuration, and use of web server software will allow the use and establishment of local Internet and Intranet servers and sites with minimal equipment and software cost impediments.

SQUID Web Cache

For many of Eritrea's incipient Internet users, they will be interested in much of the same material from the Internet.  New posting, community bulletin board postings, and basic, practical information pages are likely to be popular.  For Internet content that may be viewed more than once, there is no need to bring that content over the International wires more than once.  Because of this, it is useful to have a server in Eritrea that keeps copies of the Internet pages that have been received and to send users the copies of the pages instead of retrieving the page several times.  The increased efficiency of retrieving multiply viewed pages only once makes it imperative to utilize proxy servers in Eritrea which have this capability.  SQUID is a standard, freely available web caching software, which like other Linux-based software can be installed on a PC for essentially free (more about SQUID can be seen at:  SQUID efficiently keeps a database of web page copies on the local hard drive of the server, and uses an efficient page management protocol to provide the duplicate requests of data off the hard disk rather than fetching it from the Internet.  The details of web caching are complicated by the prevalence of dynamic web content, but for that portion of Internet content that is relatively static, web caching can drastically increase the efficiency of use of the international data connections.

Web Site Mirroring and the wget command

Another tool that can be used in increasing the efficiency and local hosting of web content is mirroring of  the international web content that is most of interest to Eritreans. By fetching copies of web pages during low use times, the information can be available on the local server and can be accessed by Eritreans with no additional data retrieval costs and without  international data transfer delays. The wget command in Linux can be used to flexibly copy the most interesting content according to a pre-determined schedule and load it on the local server. The wget command even has the capability of checking the date of the page being requested and not fetching those pages that have not been updated.  If used with care to develop local information sites that retain the interest of Eritrean Internet users, this technique has the potential of increasing the efficiency of information distribution and international bandwidth utilization several fold.

Tigrigna () and Arabic scripts

Making Eritreans more comfortable with computers and computer-based information will be a crucial element of bringing the benefits of the Internet to the average Eritrean.  There are several ways of doing this. First of all existing Tigrigna and Arabic font programs can be used to produce multi-lingual web pages and e-mail (as HTML attachments).  The disadvantage of that technique is that the users need to buy the font and keymap software.  An alternative is to have a standard phonetic transliteration for both languages.  Then for many applications, programs can be written on the server which can transform the transliteration into the specific language script.

There are probably half a dozen other possible approaches that can be taken local language content development.  A diversity of approaches should be tried with the key to success probably be being some standardization of the fonts, key mappings, and transliterations, along with some low-cost access or entry into multi-lingual computer use that does not require the purchase of some proprietary software.  Those two elements will allow for wide-spread multi-lingual access.

Developing Local Content

Another very imporant feature of Eritrea's incipient Internet will be developing locally useful, relevant and interesting content.  Every kilobyte that is retrieved by Eritreans from local sites and content is a kilobyte that is not transfered over an international communication wire that is using precious foreign exchange for its financial maintenance.

Development of local content requires allowing a diversity of users and developers to post content on their own web sites and providing an easy-to-use interface to allow people to do such web content development.  In terms of increasing the customer base, and the local demand of Internet services.  It actually might be to the benefit of local ISP's to provide automated web hosting services for their users for little or no extra charge for Internet user accounts. Even more beneficial for local ISP's would be to organize contests amongst their users so that those with the most visits receive some reward like free Internet services for one to several months.  By providing a user friendly interface for local users to upload web content, one allows the creation of a pool of potentially hundreds of Eritrean web authors rather than just utilizing an elite of a few technical staff working at the local ISP's.

CGI and Customized, Interactive Web Pages

The common graphic interface (CGI) standard for web pages allows one to write programs at the server that can dynamically interact with the users that are getting web content from the server.  By learning how to write CGI scripts and programs, technical workers at Eritrea's ISP's can potentially design and implement customized Intranet solutions for a diverse set of Eritrean information networking needs.   But since this is a fairly advanced skill and there is a derth of experienced programmers in Eritrea, it is uncertain to what extent dynamic web content development will take hold in Eritrea.


For some years to come, email will remain the workhorse and the most popular service provided by Eritrea's Internet.  UUCBSMTP (Unix to Unix Compressed Batched Simplified Mail Transfer Protocol) will remain for some time to come, the most efficient way to transfer email volume over the international connection.  But as more continuous connections to the International Internet become more common, the transfers will switch from a international phone calls to taking place over a transmission control protocol (TCP) connection over the Internet.  UUCP (Unix to Unix Copy) will remain a more efficient method for transfering batched mail transfers over a slow connection than making mail deliveries directly from Eritrea using the Simplified Mail Transfer Protocol (SMTP).  But at some point there will be unutilized international bandwith and the efficiency of mail transfers over the international connection will become less of a concern.  At that point,  mail transfers will probably be made directly using SMTP rather than UUCBSMTP.


Internet services will arrive in Eritrea in the fall of 1999, shortly before the new millenium.  It is uncertain if the Eritrean branch of the International computer internetwork will be the elite domain of computer saavy foreigners or an accessible tool for national economic development.  For friends of Eritrea, it is certainly important for Internet and computer information services to be accessible to as many Eritreans as possible at very cheap prices.  But the cost of data services depends not only on an inexpensive international connection, but it also depends on the ingenuity in innovations of  Eritrean ISP's in managing data transfers, local hosting of foreign content, and the development and expansion of local content.  How much ISP's can direct users to content that is already present on the hard disk of a local server will determine the cost of Internet access for Eritreans as much if not more than the cost of international connectivity.

The degree to which the Internet becomes relevant and accessible for Eritreans will depend on the ingenuity, inspiration and dedication of both Eritrea's friends and computer and business professionals in Eritrea.  The ETE hopes to contribute to information accessibility for Eritreans.  Information access must not become the monopoly domain of a few affluent foreigners.  The Internet is a public resource, and the public in every country and at every income level should have the right and the means to access it.

Most recent update: August, 1999 by rvb