updated 4/6/2005 12:32:05 AM ET 2005-04-06T04:32:05

Ethiopia, one of the poorest nations on earth, will expand Internet coverage from a handful of users to the entire country in three years, the prime minister said Tuesday.

Premier Meles Zenawi said information technology lay at the heart of transforming the impoverished country where millions are dependent on foreign aid.

The government is working with U.S technology giant Cisco Systems to boost its coverage.

"We are fully committed to ensuring that as many of our poor as possible have this weapon that they need to fight poverty at the earliest possible time," Meles told a gathering of government ministers and information technology experts.

"We plan to ensure universal access and Internet connectivity to all the tens of thousands of rural kebeles (districts) of our country over the next two to three years," he said.

Currently there are just 30,000 Internet lines in a country of 71 million people making it one of the lowest users of information technology in the world, according to a study by the World Bank. But within six months that figure will be expanded to 500,000 lines.

The government has begun laying 6,200 miles of fiber optic cables and invested around $40 million in developing its Internet service.

Ethiopia has a massive rural population of 57 million people, most of whom eke out an existence as subsistence farmers. Around half the population can't read or write, few have access to newspapers or phones and most have never used a computer.

Anthony Vonsee, general manager of Cisco Systems, told the conference the new system would allow private and public institutions to take advantage of the Internet to empower citizens.

"Poverty is rooted in lack of knowledge," he said. "Internet technology is all about the distribution of knowledge."

The prime minister added that information technology could be used for "e-schools," improving governance and e-healthcare. It is launching "schoolnet" which will provide 450 secondary schools around the country with Internet access and will link all regional and district government offices.

"Healthnet" will connect all referral hospitals around the country as the basis for a nationwide tele-medicine infrastructure.

"Not long ago many of us felt that we were too poor to afford to seriously invest in information and communication technology," Meles told government ministers and experts.

"We were convinced that we should invest every penny we have on securing the next meal for our people. We did not believe serious investment in ICT had anything to do with facing the challenges of poverty that kills. Now I think we know better," he added.

Copyright 2005 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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