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Should ZICTA offer “FREE” Internet in universities, schools and libraries?

Walk on to any university campus in Europe or the United States and you are likely to have “FREE” Wi-Fi service and access to the Internet. Do the same in Zambia and you are lucky to get a “HOTSPOT” paid connection or better still a 3G wireless connection. Something is fundamentally wrong with this picture. The same is true for restaurants, cafes, hotels and public conferences areas. A radicle change in the way we view ICT in Zambia is required and the Regulator is the first step in delivery of a triple AAA (Availability, Accessibility, Affordability) service. Consider the following;

Internet availability. Over the last few years we have seen MNOs and the regulator roll out 3G services into rural Zambia. We have seen population covered by MNOs surpass the 80% mark. We note SIM registration equivalent to 50% of the population of Zambia!. We have seen “Giveaways” of computer labs and building of “computer classrooms” in all the newspapers. Availability and connectivity is no longer an issue or a fundamental priority if Zambia is to take the next step in the ICT revolution sweeping the world.

Internet accessibility. Herein lies the challenge. Now that we have the “roads” (broadband, 3G wireless) do we have the “vehicles” (devices) to ride on them and do we have the “fuel” (tariffs) to power the vehicles? This is where ZICTA needs to be forward looking and championing the cause of growing the nation’s ICT capability. Internet penetration in Zambia is still below 20% because the devices required to access the Internet are still out of reach of the ordinary populace. Consider the 5% duty levied on devices, kindly advocate for it to be scrapped on devices at least those destined for education institutions. iSchool, Zedupad and other such devices would be a good starting point. If you can’t convince the Ministry of Finance then we suggest ZICTA offers incentives directly to MNOs to do the same. The object being lowering the cost of entry. Consider that Internet device as a BOOK. Would you tax books destined for educating our children?

Internet affordability. The bulk of the tax is in the “fuel”(VAT, Excise) because it is easy to administer and is straightforward from a Government perspective. Having said that there are some absurd taxes such as taxing access to the Internet service which ISPs pay and pass on to the end user. Consider selective tax incentives focusing on developing the educational sector. Remove the tax for services provided to educational institutions. Tax only commercial us! The cost of bundles and tariff plans have been a source of pain. The argument that Zambia is landlocked therefore expensive to access the landing points is outdated. Zambia is the “HUB” of Internet connectivity for all the countries surrounding it. A national Fibre Optic Strategy with focus on connectivity will kill this cost argument once and for all. ZICTA please put this in place and end-user costs will plummet. Asking MNOs to reduce prices is a waste of time and effort. Kindly speed up the introduction of technology-neutral licenses and prices will take care of themselves!

Universal Access Fund. All MNOs pay a percentage of revenue to ZICTA as a contribution to the fund. The use of the fund has always been a sore point with MNOs and the regulator as to what it should be used for. Having put all these ICT labs in schools, are they connected to the Internet or are they just “typing” class centers? Schools do not have the budget to access the Internet as regularly as they would like to so as to have a meaningful impact on the curriculum being taught. Consider the use of these funds to either provide free, or subsidize access to the Internet. Let us not fall into the trap of donating books and then not having a library to store the books or allow access to the books. It is from the schools and the universities that the future leaders of Zambia will emanate from. If Zambia is to compete as a nation we have to get some of these basic grassroots institutions to be set up to win now. We can no longer wait in the doldrums of technology and hope that at some stage some technocrat will finally come round to thinking that ICT needs a more practical and realistic approach so that the nation remains competitive on the educational scale. Not all of us can send our children to expensive schools abroad where these facilities are standard. ZICTA as the catalyst needs to lead in this front and take the ICT fight to the next level. Lets share the ICT plan for education so that as a nation we can all rally behind IT.

Can ZICTA offer “FREE” Internet? Of course YES! It is well within their mandate to do it. What is required is the will to look outside the traditional boundaries and see ICT as a national issue across all sectors. They should take up the mantel of educating the nation and lifting the standards in the learning institutions. We cannot wait, Zambia cannot afford to wait, lets put in place stimulus now that lead to “FREE” Internet at least in our learning institutions!

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