by Glory Mushinge
For more than seven years, the country has waited for the policy, while holding studies and consultative meetings amongst the private and public sector to ensure the final product would become something to write home about. The eventual launch of the policy on the 28th of March 2007 marked the beginning of much hard work for the sector, as there are many issues that need to be addressed.
There are issues of infrastructure, especially in rural and peri-urban areas where there is literally no proper communication infrastructure and skills to utilize ICT’s. In the words of the Zambian President Levy Mwanawasa, as carried out by his Vice President, Dr Rupiah Banda, when he officially launched the policy this week, "Government’s intention is to bridge the digital divide amongst Zambians."
The president directed all government ministries to implement e-governance, describing it as machinery that plays an important role in the nation's development process. According to the policy, e-governance involves the deployment and exploitation of ICT's to facilitate the process of bridging government closer to the people, through major improvements in delivery of goods and services as well as information provision in ways that are most convenient to citizens and other stakeholders.
The government visualizes a Zambia transformed into an information and knowledge based society and economy, supported by consistent development and pervasive access to ICT’s by all citizens by the year 2030.
However, the question that lingers is—how prepared is Zambia as a country to start the implementation work? How much money, for instance, has been set aside for this noble cause?
There is need to embark first on a program of setting up a proper infrastructure to pave way for implementation of ICT related projects. There is need for the re-loading of the education sector, to include in the school syllabus subjects that deal with the use/application of ICT’s, as well as furnishing the schools with ICT facilities that could be utilized in education
The potential of Voice Over Internet Protocol (VoIP) is also another issue that needs to be looked at. It would be an easy way for people to heighten their correspondence with others, inside and outside Zambia. It would be cheaper than phones, especially when it comes to communicating with those outside the country. To be able to talk to friends and family abroad will bring them closer to where we are. It would also keep Zambians abreast of latest developments around the world, something that would contribute to bridging the digital divide. This is something that has not been legalized by the government. The few people that use VoIP either do it internally or illegally.
The reluctance by government to legalize VoIP is generated from their concern about the circumvention of regulations. Communications Authority of Zambia, Shula Habenzu, observes, “When you talk about VOIP, it is internet telephoning and when you talk about this convergence between IP and telecommunication which defines the next generation network, everything is going to be about IP, whether its a TV or video, website, etc. It’s a big shift because everything is going to run on IP. That's what defines the next generation network, so how are you going to regulate that? That's a challenge!
Although the country now lags behind many African countries that started internet services just a few years ago, it boasts of having been the pioneer of internet in Sub-Sahara Africa, outside South Africa, in the early 90’s, with its internet sub-sector being fully liberalized and one of the most competitive in the ICT service industry in Zambia.
The ICT sector in Zambia is categorized into four main sub-sectors: telecommunications, information technology, electronic media, and postal communication. The major telecommunications infrastructure carrier for the country is The Zambia Telecommunications Company (ZAMTEL), which covers most parts of the country, but, over time, the infrastructure capacity has detoriated due to technology changes and system inadequacies, according to the policy.
The Internet market in Zambia is still developing, with approximately 12,000 internet subscribers and additional 30,000 internet users mainly partronising internet cafes. The potential for rapid growth is however undermined by inadequate telecommunications infrastructure development across the country, poor telephone accessibility, and high access costs.
The license fee has also proven prohibitive to many Zambians and the limit on foreign shareholding for ISP’s and other similar value added licenses is inhibiting most Zambians to enter the market, due to inadequate access to start-up capital for such ventures. Government hopes that this policy will act as a guiding document to assist organizations in developing sector specific ICT policies and plans that will allow the application of ICT’s in respective programs and projects.
The challenges are many, but the important thing is for the country to tap in to the experiences of other countries, implementing the activities that are bringing positive results in their ICT sectors and learning from the negative applications so as to avoid making the same mistakes.