As many people in sparsely populated areas in Africa remain without access to communications, an experimental network has been deployed in Zambia to study the economic feasibility of bringing cellular networks to remote regions.

Mobile operators in Africa region have been slow to expand their networks to remote rural areas, believing that low-income and sparsely populated regions cannot be served profitably.

But Range Networks, in collaboration with the Mobility Management and Networking Laboratory (Moment Lab) at the University of California Santa Barbara in the U.S., has deployed an experimental network in remote Southern Zambia to study the economic feasibility of bringing cellular networks to remote regions of the world.

The network was set up as a free service using open source software to study the feasibility of low-cost systems to potentially cover billions of people around the world without access to mobile communication.

The deployment of the network has provided the remote village of Macha in Zambia with the capability of making and receiving calls and sending and receiving local short messaging system (SMS) messages. The network also allows for outgoing global calls and outgoing global SMS text messages on a trial basis.

"In partnership with UC Santa Barbara, we have enabled communication in remote communities around the global, bringing affordable cellular service to those disconnected from each other and the rest of the world," according to David Burgess, CEO of Range Networks, in a statement.

Using a generic wireless Internet Protocol (IP) backbone, the network operates as a self-contained local loop, replacing the need for expensive cellular-grade interconnections, hardware and software.

Many telecom regulators in the region have been pushing telecom operators to expand their networks to remote rural areas in order to promote universal access to communications, but operators have claimed they have been paying too much for telecom equipment, which raises the cost of doing business in Africa. Operators also say rural services do not let them recoup their investment.

In Zambia, the Zambia Information and Communication Technology Authority (ZICTA), the country's telecom sector regulator, has teamed up with operators to build telecom infrastructure in rural areas, including shared towers, in a bid to help operators quickly expand their networks to rural areas.

"I have heard about this network but I'm not sure about its success," Yamfwa Mukanga, minister of communications and transport told IDGNS. "But if it succeeds, it will be a step closer to helping out people in rural parts of the country to access communication services."

A study by data analysis firm Wireless Intelligent last year revealed that over five million Zambians are not subscribed to a mobile network.