AFRICA generally has always been viewed as a continent that isn't very connected in terms of internet speeds and the number of users compared to other parts of the world.
The low internet connectivity in Zambia is historical and attributable to low infrastructure which makes Information Communications Technology (ICT) services reach especially to rural areas not only expensive but also less reliable.
Internet use in the country at the moment is very low.
However, this is set to change as connectivity is being augmented by the combination of deliberate efforts of the government and Zambia Information Communications Technology Authority (ZICTA), as well private sector participation in the ICT sector.
Internet has the potential to play significant role in reducing poverty, enhancing education levels and promoting sustainable development especially in rural areas.
Increasing rural internet access, reducing costs of internet services and increasing the number of rural access points, all form part of the cocktail of efforts to enhance Internet penetration in Zambia.
Despite low penetration levels, internet is expanding in Zambia at very impressive rates.
The rapid drop in smartphone pricing was expected to play a major role in bringing internet connectivity to Zambians to unprecedented levels over the next five to 10 years, uplifting economies, especially in rural areas, in the process.
Some smartphones already dropping below as low K500,000 threshold and much less priced devices inbound. Smartphones are rapidly falling to price levels that make them accessible to a larger market in Zambia.
According to ZICTA, the domestic mobile telephony is to see about 80 per cent growth by end 2013 as service providers expand their footprints in rural areas.
Zambia, currently has more than eight million mobile phone subscribers, based on in terms of SIM Subscriber Identity Module
Mobile service, according to ZICTA, had been the most forceful segment of the ICT which account for four per cent of the country's real Gross Domestic Product GDP
The growth of mobile phone sector was expected to spur expansion of internet into rural areas where access had previously been hampered by lack strong infrastructure such personal computers.
"They mobile phone service providers
are trying to ensure that all the under-saved and unsaved areas have connectivity," said ZICTA. "By putting up infrastructure in rural areas, the subscriber base will grow, and this will ultimately affect Internet service subscribers."
One of the reasons cited for high poverty levels and high cost of doing business in rural areas is lack of access to ICTs which is key to improving incomes.
The expansion of 3G and 4G services (which allows internet access without wi-fi) and link via undersea fibre-optic network was currently attaching Zambia to the global broadband network, and at the same time, increasing citizenry access to Internet.
The traditional Internet Service Providers (ISPs) are no longer leading expansion of this platform; Internet provision on the cellphone with the growth of networks in rural areas is rapidly increasing.
Incorporating ICTs has in most cases proved to be effective in meeting some set developmental target.
Although it is clear that low rural income can partly be blamed on lack of strong Internet connectivity, if Zambia were to benefit more widely from internet access, the barriers will need to be pulled down.
Access to internet is rapidly being recognized as a crucial human right as other fundamental rights like education and health.
ZICTA is targeting the young people to take a lead in the use of ICTs in bridging the digital divide.
To stimulate interest and appetite towards ICTs among pupils, ZICTA partnered with the Ministry of Education in carrying out ICT-related developmental projects.
One of the collaborations is a project dubbed 'Connecting Learning Institutions' which is aimed at extending ICTs services to schools, colleges and universities in the country with particular focus on schools in rural communities.
ZICTA, through the 'Connecting Learning Institutions' project has focused on setting up computer labs in schools.
Under this project, whose implementation has already commenced, ZICTA is scheduled to connect over 148 basic schools and over 50 Colleges to ICTs around the country.
Each beneficiary school receives 0 end user desktop computers, two printers, administration desktops, one-year internet subscription, and skills training for teachers and computer administrators from the identified schools. The colleges each receive 40 computers plus rest of the accessories being received by the Schools.
Labour minister Fackson Shamenda said the government was committed to implementing projects that would improve ICTs in schools as it raised education standards in the country.
Shamenda said the introduction of ICTs in schools signaled technological evolution which children needed to be exposed to.
"The world is now highly dependent on technology, so it is important that children are introduced to these things at an early stage," Shamenda was quoted in the media last week.
Another initiative by ZICTA to encourage the youth to realise the relevance of ICTs in their welfare and learn to use them is the ZICTA Annual National ICT quiz for Secondary and High Schools across the country.
So far, two such events have been held with Kasama Boys High school winning the latest National ICT quiz which was broadcast on Zambia National Broadcasting Corporation (ZNBC) for the benefit of pupils who had not participated.
"The fact that a school based in one of the provinces located far from the line of rail won the second national ICT Quiz is clear indication that pupils in the rural communities in Zambia are taking keen interest in ICTs." The ICT Quiz was aimed at encouraging research and familiarity with ICT products, as well as services and increase ICT knowledge for pupils.
"At ZICTA, we strongly believe that the creativity and energy that young people possess can ignite and sustain a shift in the mindset of the country at large on the importance and relevance of ICTs in all spheres of life," said ZICTA director general Margaret Chalwe at the end of the grand finale of the quiz held at Mulungushi International Conference and was graced by Minister of Education, Science, Vocational Training and Early Education John Phiri.
ZICTA has also facilitated the establishment of ICT clubs in different schools in the provinces.
The current story writing on ICTs competition for girls which ZICTA is running is yet another initiative targeting the youth, with a deliberate effort to entice the girl child to embrace ICTs in order to bridge the currently, evident digital gap between girls and boys.