FRANCIS LUNGU, Samfya
MOBILE service penetration especially into the remote parts of the country is an issue that Government and other players in the telecommunications space have been constantly investing to bridge the communication gap between urban and rural populations. With the three mobile service telecommunication providers in Airtel, MTN Zambia and Zamtel on the Zambian market, the 16.4 million country’s population has witnessed the steady growth of mobile-related services in recent years.
Different levels of investments have come into the telecommunications business from the players to boost the provision of services to consumers. An array of innovative products have been developed for the convenience of clients.
Competition in the sector has seemingly oozed benefits to mobile phone subscribers through a number of promotional products. But one of the major challenges for the three service providers has been the quality of their voice call services, especially last year, according to the telecommunications regulator, Zambia Information and Communications Technology Authority (ZICTA).
By the close of 2017, ZICTA indicated that Zambia had an estimated total of 13.4 million registered SIM card holders while 12.9 million of that number were active subscribers shared among Airtel, MTN Zambia and Zamtel.
From 2010 to the last quarter of 2017, according to ZICTA, the mobile service penetration had grown from 41.6 percent to 74.3 percent per 100 inhabitants across the country.
In terms of national network geographical coverage, ZICTA states in its recent report that the growth has been stagnant at 78 percent between 2012 and 2017 just like it had been for the national network geographical coverage by population standing at 93 percent between 2015 and 2017.
At the centre of mobile connectivity across the country had been the communication towers that have been mounted countrywide by the three service providers, although the number of these towers fluctuated in 2017.
During the first quarter of last year, according to ZICTA figures, the country had 2,180 communication towers and that in the second quarter, the number increased to 2,440. It slightly reduced to 2,430 in the third quarter due to switching off of some of them by respective service providers.
This number of communication towers seem not to be adequate going by the connectivity gaps mainly experienced in rural areas where mobile phone signal is difficulty to catch.
“We have to go to a certain place under a big tree and others go to an open air place far away from the villages just to catch the network. But it is dangerous in the night,” said Malama Chipempa, a resident of Samfya district in Luapula Province.
In trying to address such connectivity gaps in the rural parts of the country, Government sourced a US$280 million loan facility from EXIM Bank of China to mount 1,009 communication towers across the country through Zamtel between September 2017 to March 2019.
The minister of Transport and Communications Brian Mushimba speaking in Samfya last week at the commissioning of one of the 82 communication towers for Luapula Province, said Government has prioritised the information communications technologies (ICT) sector in economic development as it is critical in job creation and national development.
Mr Mushimba said Government has embarked on a robust campaign to connect the country to mobile services and to bridge the digital gap between the urban rural populations.
“The development of the ICT sector is one of the important areas of cooperation under the framework of the forum on China-Africa co-operation (FOCAC). The agreement involves construction of 1009 communication towers countrywide, the setting up of a matched transmission network and user access terminals in unserved and underserved areas such as Samfya,” he said.
He said it was exciting that the commissioning of the communication tower in Samfya stood true to Government’s unwavering resolve to grow the sector.
Mr Mushimba said the project was made possible by the partnership agreement between the governments of Zambia and China and that 10, 000 jobs are expected to be created during the construction phase of the towers and through retail sells of communication-related services.
The minister said the project to build communication sites was firmly in line with Government’s objective to provide and make possible universal access to ICT which was also embedded in the Seventh National Development Plan covering 2017-2021.
Mr Mushimba indicated that more than 60 towers across the country had been switched on and were providing essential communication services to the people under the Phase II of the project. Other sites would be launched in Southern and Eastern provinces soon.
The communication towers are being raised for Zamtel with the technical support from Huawei Technologies. Mr Mushimba commended the two organisations for the speed and excellent workmanship exhibited in the implementation of the project, adding that the communication services enjoyed along the line of rail, would now be available to the populations off the line of rail.
“Overall, the completion of the project will further result in increased mobile phone penetration from 70 percent to almost 100 percent as well as increase in data service penetration from five percent to 40 percent,” he said.
Luapula Province Minister Nickson Chilangwa said the coming of the communication towers had opened up the province and would spur economic development through digital communication.
“The lives of our people will never be the same with this connectivity to mobile service signal. This will have multiple economic benefits for the people of Luapula”, Mr Chilangwa said.
And Zamtel chief executive officer Sydney Mupeta said the commissioning of the 2G tower marked an exciting start to the year 2018 as Zamtel focuses on aggressive customer acquisition.
Mr Mupeta said the rolling out of the sites was the ultimate game changer for Zamtel as the state-owned telecom company was positioning itself to be at the cutting edge of digital transformation that answered to the aspirations of Government to deliver a smart Zambia by 2030.
“This will soon be upgraded to 4G. We are particularly excited that the continuous switching on of these sites will further boost our subscriber base and increase revenues which have been rising over the last few months by impressive proportions,” he said.
With this kind of investment coming to the telecommunications sector, the mode of communication is expected to change and increase both social and economic activities among mobile service subscribers.
FRANCIS LUNGU, Samfya