Zambia has become the first country in Southern Africa to drag mobile phone service providers to court for poor services, setting a precedent that is expected to have ripple effect in the region.

The Zambia Information and Communication Technology Authority (ZICTA), the country's telecom sector regulator, has sued MTN, Airtel and Zamtel for alleged poor quality of services, which the authority said are criminal in nature because customers were being exploited.

ZICTA said through its public relations manager Ngabo Nankamba that it has sued all the three operators for failing to meet the minimum quality of service and also for failing to comply with provisions of quality of service guidelines.

Network congestion, dropped calls, network outage and a widespread lack of network availability are some of the problems facing Zambian consumers.

Poor service provisions by operators is, however, generally considered to be a result of lack of investment in network upgrades and has become a source of concern in many African countries where consumers are losing money on uncompleted calls.

"ZICTA has the right to impose punitive or criminal action against a service provider that fails to deliver basic minimum standards of quality service as in the case of the three operators," Nankamba said.

Zambia joins the East African country of Tanzania, which has threatened to impose penalties and prison sentences on mobile phone operators that fail to deliver quality services to customers.

Mobile operators in the region have over the past two years been engaged in a price war that has resulted in cheaper communication services. The price reductions, however, have resulted in network congestion as customers can now afford to speak longer for less.

Quality assurance tests carried out on operators in several countries in the region have shown that all the operators tested failed to meet service quality levels specified in service level agreements.

"Since operators have refused to heed repeated calls for better services, the idea of dragging them to court or even sending them to prison is the only sure way of compelling them to improve their service delivery," said Amos Kalunga, telecom analyst at Computer Society of Zambia.

Kalunga said Zambia's action was expected, following Tanzania's threat of heavy penalties and prison sentences, adding that more countries in the region are expected to follow the example set by the two countries.

In April this year, the Zambian government accused ZICTA of scheming with operators to maintain high mobile tariffs while providing poor services to customers. The Zambian government directed ZICTA to adopt an aggressive approach in regulating mobile service providers in order to force them to improve their service delivery.

In Uganda, poor services have continued and the Uganda Communication Commission (UCC) has threatened sanctions against providers that are in serious and repeated breach of the operating license