A new offering by Bharti Airtel has made Zambia the first country in Southern Africa to have a so-called 3.75G data network that will let customers experience high-speed mobile broadband access and video calls as well as allow for mobile TV.

Bharti Airtel is Africa's second-largest mobile operator after MTN of South Africa. In many countries in Africa, mobile TV is still not an option due to poor infrastructure and limited broadband capacity, despite the launch of several undersea cables in the region.

Airtel Zambia said its new network will benefit a variety of users including large corporate, small or medium-size businesses and youths. The data service offers up to 21M bps speeds. The service, launched this week, is part of the company's US$250 million rollout plan that ends in March this year.

Telecommunications is one of the fastest-growing industries in Africa, which has a rapidly expanding mobile-phone market that now includes Internet access, mobile banking and mobile commerce.

The new 3.75G data network is also expected to be rolled out across Africa -- where Airtel has operations in countries including Nigeria, Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania -- with the objective of building the largest 3G network across the region, according to Airtel Zambia Managing Director Fayaz King.

King said in Zambia alone, the company currently has 280 3.75G sites covering all provincial districts. By the end of 2012, King said the company will roll out the network to up to 400 sites across the country.

Airtel has partnered with the Zambia Information and Communication Technology Authority (ZICTA), the country's telecom sector regulator, to build more than 350 communication towers across the country under the Universal Access Network Rollout project financially supported by the Zambian government.

"Our 3.75G platform will liberate the potential of our youth through enabling faster access to the Internet for learning, sharing, social networking, creating and accessing content," King said.

Africa's subscriber base for voice communication is still growing, but the growth curve has begun to flatten in the region's more mature markets, forcing operators to compete more aggressively on the provision of data services, even in rural areas. As a result, King said that going forward, voice will become a small part of the company's business while data will take up a big share.

The 3.75G network, King said, is not just about faster mobile connection but will also create new ways of interaction, communication, accessing information, conducting business and enhancing entertainment.

The launch of the 3.75G network is expected to quicken Internet penetration in Zambia in both urban and rural areas that are connected to the company's mobile communication network.

By the end of December 2011, Internet penetration in Zambia was estimated to be below 6 percent of the entire population of 13.2 million. The Zambian government has been blaming mobile operators' failure to expand Internet services to rural areas and the high cost associated with getting connectivity as the causes for low Internet penetration.