Connect Africa's launch in Zambia of its low-cost rural communications services is the first step to a broader rollout across the Southern African region.

Connect Africa projects director Dion Jerling said the company is aiming to connect rural communities to existing mobile networks through the deployment of low-cost base stations. The company sees Zambia as a leading example of how state-of-the art technology "can be harnessed to connect remote communities to the mobile phone network," Jerling said.

There is a growing demand for effective communications in the region, but millions of people are still unconnected to mobile and Internet communications. Many service providers in the region are unable or unwilling to expand their services to rural areas, claiming that the cost of operations is too high and that it would take years to recoup their investment.

However, Amos Kalunga, telecom analyst at Computer Society of Zambia, said rural areas in most African countries now provide opportunities for operators to add more customers to their customer base. Connect Africa's move to rural communities will have a positive economic impact in the region, Kalunga said.

"Stiff competition in the telecom sector has greatly been eating into operators profit margins. It means therefore that many of them do not have sufficient funds to quickly roll out their services to rural areas," Kalunga said.

Over the past eight years, Connect Africa tested sustainable rural service delivery in Zambia and South Africa and has now embarked on a project to deliver GSM coverage including SMS services to remote rural areas in Zambia and the rest of the region.

The base stations keep capital costs to a minimum, enabling construction to be funded through a revenue-sharing model based on income generation. Key to Connect Africa's strategy are service centers at each base station run by local entrepreneurs who are able to provide services such Internet access, phone charging and business services to the community.

Zambia, like many other countries in the region has been urging operators to reinforce government efforts to develop ICT in rural communities in order to fuel economic development.

The Zambia Information and Communication Technology Authority (ZICTA), the country's telecom sector regulator, has been erecting telecom towers around the country to help mobile operators quickly roll out their networks to rural areas. ZICTA will be collecting revenue from the shared towers.

In Zimbabwe and Tanzania, telecom regulators have set aside millions of dollars from the universal access funds for rural connectivity.

Access to national grid power had over the years been the other major challenge hindering the rollout of mobile communications in many rural areas in the region. But this is now changing as most African government have started electrification projects aimed at connecting rural areas to national grids.