Nippon Electric Company, Ltd. (NEC) has become the latest firm bidding Ethio Telecom’s multi-billion birr demand-based expansion project, The Reporter has learnt.

The coming to the scene of the Japanese firm brings to the fray yet another competitor to the bid that had already attracted Chinese giants ZTE and Huawei as well as Sweden-based Ericsson.

Ethio Telecom’s expansion projects have for the past few years been fiercely contested by the Chinese duo.

In an exclusive interview with The Reporter on Wednesday, Ethio Telecom CEO Andualem Admassie (PhD) revealed that the latest telecom expansion project, which he branded as ‘demand-based expansion’, attracted some ten bidders to the floated expression of interest (EoI) for the project.

However, only four of them that have met the required standards and terms issued by Ethio Telecom were shortlisted, the CEO told The Reporter.

According to the CEO, one of the short-listed bidders is the Japanese firm NEC, which is taking part in a local bid for the first time while the other short-listed companies are the two Chinese giants and Ericsson.

He further indicated that his company was engaged in negotiations with four of the short-listed companies as regards financial matters as well as agreement frameworks.

He, however, refrained from disclosing specific details with respect to the bidders, but expressed hope that the winning party would be declared before long.

He also hinted that the would-be-commenced expansion project might also introduce a 5-G networking system, at least on a trial basis.

In the coming one or two months, negotiation is going to be conducted with the four short-listed bidders on the Request for Proposal (RfP) in addition to on how to secure financing, he said.

He also indicated that the speed of negotiation with them depends on their respective proposals and RfI (Request for Information) in which the client could demand further information from bidders for they have different kinds of network solutions on offer that can include lists of specific technology, quality and type.

From past experience, the current bidding process is expected to be fiercely competitive among the two Chinese giants as well as Ericsson and new-comer NEC.

According to information obtained from NEC’s website, the Japanese company supplies equipment required for network implementation to telecom carriers, along with network control platform systems and operating services.

In another news, Andualem indicated the current telecom network coverage in the country reached 85 percent while the total number of mobile phone subscribers is some 58,000.

He also told The Reporter that the shortage of vouchers particularly the low-price top-up cards (worth 5 and 10 birr) has been addressed. He, however, noted that there was no shortage of cards in the country.

“All the cards were in the hands of distributors. The problem was caused when distributors tried to hoard cards; yet there was no practical shortage in the country,” Andualem explained, adding the hoarding had come after a rumor circulated that Ethio Telecom had run out of stock.

However, he did not deny there were still shortages, specifically 5-birr and ten-birr cards compared to higher denomination ones (worth 25, 50 and 100 birr).

He also noted that measures had been taken against some distributors for their role in creating an artificial shortage.

Among other factors that contributed to the shortage of cards, Andualem mentioned shortage of foreign currency.

He pointed out that there was an undue delay in obtaining foreign exchange that prevented his company from importing cards.

“The mobile card is our blood. Our survival mainly depends on the sale of mobile cards. Hence, when we face shortage of cards, our existence will be at stake,” he said.

He further disclosed that the shortage of the two small-denomination cards is fueled by the fact that the majority of subscribers opt for them. But cards valued 50 and 100 birr are still in stock in bulk as demand for them is low. He further noted that since last week 140 million birr worth of 5-birr and 10-birr cards have been dispatched to all regional states through the post office as well as via chartered planes.

Andualem told The Reporter that with a view to addressing the problem, the government was considering the possibility of assigning the task of printing voucher cards to local companies.

“We have few local companies that expressed interest to print the voucher locally. In fact, it is not for us to decide. But I hope that we would be able to produce it here in our country,” he said.

Still explaining alternative remedies to curb the shortage of airtime for mobile users, he added that electronic top-up system is being tested which the service has already piloted in some of the firm’s 240 stations in Addis Ababa and across the regions.

The electronic voucher system is a new marketing scheme whereby customers can pay for airtime with a machine planted in selected time and they immediately receive text messages on the amount of the airtime service they are seeking.

In a related news, Debretsion Gebremichael (PhD), minister of information and communication technology (MoICT), announced on Wednesday the government is yet to assign a new board chair and members for Ethio Telecom.

Over the past 10 months, the government-owned telecom firm has been operating without a full board after its former chairman, Tefera Derbew, former minister of agriculture, left his ministerial position in favor of a new advisory role at the PM office.