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Understanding Eritrea’s Exceptionally Limited Internet Access

By Tim Katlic on August 1, 2014

eritrea internet censorship

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 despite internet restrictions and self-censorship.

This in itself is challenging to dissect considering the interaction of Eritreans living abroad with the few residing at home with the means for Internet access. 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 of Internet Access

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 mobile phones, 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).

Internet Use in Eritrea

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 digital literacy 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.

People, Not Technology, Will Change Eritrea

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.

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Written by
Tim Katlic started oAfrica in 2009 to raise awareness of how Africans – everyday citizens and entrepreneurs alike – constructively utilize the Internet. He asks that you never take your bandwidth for granted.
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8 Comments to “Understanding Eritrea’s Exceptionally Limited Internet Access”

  1. Merhawie says:

    Please discuss, for example, Eritreans distribution of connectivity (e.g. access distribution v raw numbers). Please also school projects using technology – some of these have been very interesting.


    • Tim Katlic says:

      I don’t have much more detailed information, but 3G access is still scarce and individual internet access is in the single-digit percentage range. Though most internet users are in Asmara, community centers, usually with Internet access, are being built in other regions (Denden Camp, Gerenfit). Mobile access is spreading to rural areas too (Mai-Aini, Dengolo-Tahtai, Sheib).

  2. Henok says:

    The number of internet cafes mentioned in your article is incorrect. There were dozens over dozens of them when I was last there in 2010.

    • Tim Katlic says:


      I’m basing this number on an estimate Tes Meharenna, owner of Asmarino.com gave to Bloomberg. He said there are “roughly 100 internet cafes.” Again, since it’s an estimate, I think your observation that were there dozens over dozens is just as correct.

  3. Merhawie says:

    @Tim, I think Henok was referring to the Aaron Berhane quote Additionally I think the assertion of fear to be a factor in reducing use is unfounded given a perusal of the internet history at the Internet cafes (most are not technically savvy and don’t clean history very frequently )

    • Tim Katlic says:

      Ah, of course. 5-6 does sound low and I should have excluded that sentence. I still wonder if fear is preventing many from even using Internet cafes in the first place though as you point out, those who do use the Internet cafes aren’t as concerned. Would you say the high cost of internet, difficulty of access, and relatively poor quality of service appear to be the greatest barriers to access?

      • Henok says:

        Thanks for clarifying Merhawie and thanks for saying that part should have been removed, Tim.

        To add to this, it is one thing to wonder if people generally feel fearful of accessing certain sites on the internet and to know it with a high degree of certainty. Personally, I would really like to see some real journalism done on this topic. By that, I don’t mean simply asking people who do not live in Eritrea. There are many creative ways to accomplish this without even setting foot in Eritrea.

        In my opinion, the only thing preventing people in Eritrea from accessing different sources of information online would be the poor quality of service. Then again, every other house in Asmara is equipped with a satellite dish that receives live video feeds from all over the world. Hardly a Country that lacks information.

  4. Merhawie says:

    I suppose considering fear to be a consideration is valid (personally, I think that is a concern everywhere). As you mention above though I think the fact that so many seem unconcerned weighs against that idea. I think what is more likely is the high price (relative to earnings) and the lack of awareness of “low bandwidth” options. Except in the colleges, I see low levels of familiarity with what are now the “ancient” tools of the internet (e.g. telnet + pine for email vs Yahoo! Mail). I think you have hit the nail on the head with “relatively poor quality of service,” although I think the key point is “relatively.” On what gauge is this to be measured? I think the best gauge would be something related to GDP/capita value (i.e. the price of bandwidth per standard currency (USD for simplicity) compared to received bandwidth). Even here I think here I think Eritrea may score poor marks because of threshold requirements for large investments (e.g. fiber landing points/stations, etc.). What do you think Tim?