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Zambia 2014 | TELECOMS & IT | REVIEW: TELECOMS & IT

Zambia's major mobile and internet providers are investing in the country's infrastructure to bring down subscriber costs in an effort to increase penetration.

The internet penetration rate is relatively low at 18%; however, Zambia recently connected to the West Africa Cable System (WACS), a submarine cable off the coast of West Africa. Zambia connected to the marine cable through Namibia, which will boost internet speeds and reduce costs. Zambia is trying to emulate Namibia, which has some of the fastest and cheapest internet on the continent. State-owned Zamtel has stated that it will now be able to offer 600 Mbps of internet capacity to its customers. The country's two mobile operators, MTN and Airtel, are the main companies to use this capacity. Zambia is also in talks with its neighbors, including Tanzania, to access either the Eastern African Submarine Cable System (EASSy) or the South Cable System (SEACOM). EASSy has a design capacity of 10 Tb/s and SEACOM 4.2 Tb/s, which would provide multi-port entry for Zambia and reduce its reliance on solely one broadband cable. Connecting to multiple major fiber-optic submarine cables would boost the speed of the country's internet dramatically as well as reduce the cost significantly. This in turn would almost certainly increase penetration as more people would be able to afford access.

While internet costs are falling as the new improved infrastructure come online, it still remains too expensive for many. As a result, some international firms are jumping to take a slice of the market by offer access through their apps. In July 2014, Facebook's owner Mark Zuckerberg launched the Internet.org App in Zambia. It is a part of a grander plan to provide access to the internet for everyone, no matter their income level. Subscribers of Airtel will be able to download the app and access a basic set of services on the internet for free, which will include Wikipedia, Google, Facebook, healthcare websites and information, and numerous job sites. There are 13 sites in total that can be accessed for free; however, if a user wishes to access a different site then they will be presented with a warning that they will be charged for data access. However, one of the main features that is missing from the free service is email, which people would have to pay to access.

One of the major issues preventing the expansion of internet access is the perception that connectivity is for the elite. However, operators believe that as more people begin to have access to the internet and the costs begin to fall, this perception should begin to change and more people will begin to get online. Facebook's App will also play a part in breaking down this perception of elitism as it is even available on 2G network phones.

MOBILE

Over the past decade, Zambia's IT sector has been investing in infrastructure and marketing to educate the population in an effort to increase mobile and internet penetration. In the late 1990s, mobile penetration stood at 0.02%; however, the estimated penetration rate for end-2014 will be 73%. Zamtel, for example, has also experienced significant growth in a much smaller time period. In 2010, Zamtel had less than 100,000 mobile subscribers; however, in 2013 this number had grown to over 2 million. “There was a measure of investment that had never before taken place in the company," Dr. Mupanga Mwanakatwe, CEO of Zamtel, explained to TBY the success behind this significant jump in subscribers. “This is a numbers game, which means you have to have the capacity and the coverage. You need both to win. Being the third provider to arrive cost us dearly. Having said that, the numbers have grown quite phenomenally over this period to where we are today," Mwanakatwe went on to say. As part of this investment program, Zamtel invested $9 million to build 132 cell towers, control rooms, power supply units, and switching units across the country. This increased coverage and was a driving factor behind Zamtel's growth. The largest company in subscriber terms is India's Airtel, with approximately 4 million, which is followed by South Africa's MTN with 3 million.

Airtel has also embarked on a program of improving and expanding the quality and coverage of its infrastructure. In September 2014, the company announced it was investing $142 million to expand its customer services, with $80 million going to network expansion, while $62 million would be spent on managing this network growth. The investment announcement was made during the launch of Airtel's Premier Club. The new service is designed for high-value customers and will provide a more personalized service with a closer engagement with the company's managers and directors. Premier Club will also provide its members with discounts from providers for certain goods and services. As part of the company's network expansion, it will finish upgrading over 242 sites by the end of 2014, and construct 58 new 3G sites to increase internet speeds. The reason for the major investment is to try and turn public opinion back in its favor after a number of complaints from its customers about poor coverage. Once complete, this should resolve the issue and attract numerous new subscribers.

4G

While in some respects Zambia is struggling in the IT sector, in others it is leading the way. In January 2014, MTN Zambia became the first provider in Zambia to commercially launch 4G LTE. This will provide its customers with the fastest mobile internet speeds possible using the latest technology. The launch of 4G marks a major stride in the country's IT and telecommunications sector and will almost triple the speed of any mobile connection available commercially in Zambia. This step highlights the government's and the private sector's commitment to driving the sector forward, which is made more impressive by the fact that they have completed this before even some of its economically advanced neighbors.