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African nations make push for rural connectivity

Governments are focusing on getting services to rural areas

As the demand for effective communication in Africa grows, governments are stepping up efforts to roll out mobile and Internet connectivity to rural areas where the majority of Africans live.

Zambia, Tanzania and Zimbabwe have all said they are making a determined push to allow rural people to use mobile phones and Internet services. Tele-centers with Internet connectivity are also being established in rural areas.

"Tanzania is making steps to address rural connectivity backlog, but Africa still faced challenges in its policy frameworks, power and skills," Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete told the Commonwealth Telecommunication Organizations Connecting Rural Communities Forum last week.

Access to national grid power had over the years been a major challenge hindering the roll out of mobile networks in many parts of the region. But this is now changing as most African governments have started rural electrification projects aimed at connecting rural areas to national grids.

The Zimbabwean government through the Post and Telecommunications Regulatory Authority of Zimbabwe, the country's telecom sector regulator, said it has set aside over US$10 million from the Universal Access Fund (USF) for rural connectivity.

"Works have already started at eight sites in rural areas," said Charles Sibanda, director general of the Post and Telecommunications Authority of Zimbabwe.

The Tanzanian government also established the USF to take connectivity to rural and underserved areas in the country, while the Zambian government has given tax holidays to telecom companies importing telecom equipment to allow them to expand quickly to rural areas.

In addition, the Zambian government has set aside more than $10 million for cell phone connectivity throughout the country and is already distributing computers, printers and scanners to rural areas for Internet connectivity.

The Zambia Information and Technology Authority (ZICTA) is erecting telecommunication towers around the country using USF to help mobile operators to quickly roll out their networks to rural areas. ZICTA will be collecting revenue from the shared towers.

In Zambia, as in many African countries, service providers have been refusing to expand their networks to rural areas, claiming low return on their investments. But following the Zambian government's granting of tax holidays on telecom equipment to operators this month, Airtel Zambia announced last week it has rolled out its network to 88 rural communities around Zambia.

"Airtel is now extending its telecommunications network to many areas of the countryside to cater for populations that earlier only saw or witnessed advances in telecommunications technology offloaded in urban areas," said Airtel Zambia managing director Fayaz King last week.

Rival operator MTN Zambia, also said it has set aside over $40 million for network expansion to rural areas this year alone.

Zambian operators currently have an infrastructure share agreement, enabling all service providers to cover many rural areas of the country.

The USF is funded from contributions from licensed phone operators and ISPs that channel 2 percent of their gross income to the fund.

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