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TELECOMMUNICATIONS: The case of
mobile network operators in Zambia (Part
1)

Bernadette Deka-Zulu (PhD Researcher-Public Enterprise)

OVER the years, there has been a growing global recognition that Information and Communication Technology (ICTs) is a major factor in social development and economic growth. In the business sector, ICT is increasingly seen as a driving force for innovation and business competitiveness.

At the regional level, key factors such as fundamental improvements in telecommunications policies, information infrastructure, e-commerce, and e-government services serve as stimuli for rapid economic and social development. 

This recognition has become an important motivation for promoting the global liberalisation of the telecommunications sector.

Since the early 2000s, Zambia has taken many steps to reform its telecommunications sector with the support of the World Bank. These include the liberalisation of the equipment industry, the separation of the postal and telecommunications businesses into independent entities, the liberalisation of the broadcasting industry, and the establishment of autonomous telecommunications and broadcasting regulators, mobile phone operators, and Internet services. Includes the creation of providers (Internet services provider).

What are telecommunication services?

Telecommunication involves the transmission of information over distances for communication. In other words, it is the science and practice of transmitting messages using technologies like telephones, computers, and email. 

It covers a wide range of topics, including voice and video conferencing, data transmission, and internet services. They play an important role in our daily lives, linking us with family and friends, colleagues, and clients. 

When we speak about mobile telecommunication, it encompasses all devices like mobile phones, wireless laptop computers, handheld devices, etc. that are enabled via a cellular connection or Wi-Fi. Mobile technology is essentially portable technology and that can be carried around easily.

The term “telecommunication services” encompasses a wide variety of services that are essential to our modern way of life. Here are just a few examples:

  • Telephone services: Traditional telephone service, also known as “landline” service, involves the transmission of voice communications over copper wires.
  • Mobile voice and data services: Voice and data services are transmitted over a wireless network, such as a cellular or satellite network.
  • Video conferencing: A service that allows users to communicate via two-way video and audio transmissions.
  • Data transmission: The transmission of digital data, such as text, images, and video.
  • Internet services: Services that provide access to the internet, such as web browsing and email.

Telecommunication services are increasingly recognised as one of the major drivers of the evolving global economy. The rapid changes and convergence in telecommunications and information technology (IT) over the last two decades have altered the way we conduct business and live. 

Telecommunication networks are being converted into giant computers, capable of transmitting all forms of communication – voice, data, images, music, and video. 

Continuously expanding applications of information and communication technologies (ICT) is transforming local, national, regional, and international economies throughout the world into so-called digital economies. 

Just as electricity, the telephone, railroad, and automobile each provided a major stimulus to economic growth and a significant restructuring of most economies and societies during the 20th century, the ICT revolution is also in the process of creating another “paradigm shift” for 21st-century network-based e-economies. 

The Impact of Telecommunication on Social and Economic Development (Zambia)

With this widespread recognition, telecom is no longer simply a convenient public service, but an enormously valuable economic resource, and an increasingly important infrastructure for economic growth and development. 

The technological advances and convergence of telecommunications, computing, and broadcasting in the last two decades, as well as organisational and regulatory improvement, have increased the flexibility of telecommunications networks and the importance of telecommunications services. This has in turn increased the tradability of other services. 

Today, telecommunication services form the backbone of industries such as banking, airlines, tourism, and distance learning and are increasingly a value-adding component of various consumer components. They are a critical component for innovation, business competitiveness, and economic growth.

Telecommunications play a vital role in the social and economic development of any country. They are the backbone of the modern economy, enabling businesses to connect with customers and suppliers, facilitating trade and commerce, and providing essential communication infrastructure for healthcare, education, and other vital services.

In Zambia, the telecom sector is regulated by the Zambia Information and Communications Technology Authority (ZICTA). The sector has been growing rapidly in recent years, with the number of mobile subscribers increasing from around five million in 2009 to 18 million in 2016. 

This growth is attributable to several factors, including the introduction of new technologies, the rollout of new infrastructure, and the entry of new players into the market.

The telecom sector is a major contributor to the Zambian economy, accounting for 2.1 – 2.9 percent of GDP in 2016. It is also one of the country’s largest employers, with around 100, 000 people directly or indirectly employed in the sector. 

The growth of the telecom sector has had a positive impact on social and economic development in Zambia. It has boosted job creation, increased access to information and communication technology (ICT), and enhanced the efficiency of businesses and government services.

The telecom sector is also playing a role in the development of other sectors of the economy, such as agriculture, health, and education. 

For example, telecommunication infrastructure is being used to improve the efficiency of the agricultural supply chain, and mobile technology is being used to deliver healthcare services to remote areas. 

The future of the telecom sector in Zambia looks bright, with continued growth expected in the coming years. The sector is well-placed to continue playing a key role in the social and economic development of the country.

Mobile Networks in Zambia (Negative impact of having few mobile network operators)

With the improvement of telecoms infrastructure, we see a rise in mobile network services. The insurgence of mobile networking services has been a major contributor to socio-economic development in Zambia. 

This is because the Zambian economy is highly service-oriented. Zambia has three mobile network providers – Zamtel, MTN, and Airtel. The three networks have about 3.7 million, 8.3 million, and 7.6 million subscribers respectively. 

From these subscription figures, it is evident that the Zambian telecommunications industry is growing. However, this growth is not evenly distributed.

The three mobile networks control about 98% of the Zambian market share. This can be attributed to the fact that they are the only telecom network in the country. This lopsided distribution of market share among the telecom networks has negative impacts on the Zambian economy.

Some of the negative impacts of having only three telecom networks in Zambia are:

  1.  In terms of service delivery, the three telecom networks are not evenly matched. Zamtel is often regarded as the worst network in Zambia. This is because it has the most dropped calls and the slowest internet speeds. 

Airtel is often considered the best network in Zambia. This is because it has the least dropped calls and the fastest internet speeds. However, Airtel’s internet speeds are not always consistent. MTN is somewhere in the middle. It is not as good as Airtel but it is also not as bad as Zamtel. 

  1.  The three telecom networks have different coverage areas. Poor coverage is one of the main disadvantages; With only three networks to choose from, signal strength can be patchy in rural areas and some parts of urban areas. This can be a major problem for people who rely on their mobile phones for work or emergencies.
  1.  With the lack of competition, the three telecom networks can charge high prices for their services. This can be a major problem for people on low incomes, who may find it difficult to afford a mobile phone at all.
  2.  The final disadvantage is a lack of innovation. With the lack of competition, the three telecom networks are not incentivised to innovate and provide new and improved services to their customers. This can be a major problem for people who want to stay up-to-date with the latest mobile technology.

A Fourth Mobile Network: What does it mean for Zambia?

Given the multiple challenges facing the telecommunications industry, the announcement of the launch of a new mobile network operator in 2022 was a breath of fresh air. 

Beeline Telecoms’ operating as Zedmobile, is to become the fourth mobile operator in Zambia which is a big deal for consumers, as the poor service of existing mobile operators gives Zambians more choices. 

The launch of a fourth mobile operator this year will create competition in the telecommunications industry as it will give consumers a wider choice of mobile operators.

Beeline Telecoms is a telecommunications mobile operator, currently entering the local market to compete with network providers like Airtel, MTN, and ZAMTEL. 

The telecom company has promised investment worth $400 million and direct employment of about 450 Zambians. As the number of mobile network operators grows, competition will intensify, driving coverage, service delivery, and innovation.

“The only challenge is that without reform of the laws governing the operators or a policy framework, customers are not entirely expectant of better service, quality and value from the forthcoming launch of the mobile network.” Bernadette Deka-Zulu.

Regarding reforms and policy formulation, the government has largely depended on Zamtel and ZICTA for policy advice. There is a need to effectively separate the functions of policymaking by the government and operation management of Zamtel. 

Policy-making functions of government must be directed toward fundamental issues of long-term societal objectives and directions, not issues of day-to-day implementation and problem-solving. 

There is a need to ensure that policymakers are informed, capable and independent to address the need for visionary policy change when it is required.

In the next edition, I will highlight the history of mobile network operators and the role of ZAMTEL and ZICTA in policy reforms regarding telecommunications in Zambia. 

bernadettedekazulu@gmail.com 

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