What if you had broadband, but no running water?

Why cheap mobile broadband is a reality

Mobiles, though, are cheap in Africa – most are sold second hand, and were probably recycled from richer nations in the first place anyway. There are 11 million people live in Zambia, but there are just 120,000 telephone subscribers. Rolling out any meaningful amount of fixed line broadband is impossible. Mobile phones, however, are ubiquitous.

It would be hard to find somewhere poorer than the small farming village of Chibwe, where we started our walk today. Years of drought and AIDS have left many of the children orphaned. The primary school children who are too old to attend Simakakata school have to stay in shared room in Kalomo, where they wash and feed themselves without adult supervision, so they can attend class.

The farm owner can often only afford the fuel to drive to town once every two weeks to take food or organise trips to see parents. Yet the community has a shared PAYG mobile which they charge using a small donated solar panel and keep topped up with 10p worth of credit at a time. It's their only way of contacting the town's clinic in an emergency.

There's plenty of demand for the mobile companies to expand the network size, then, but why the need for mobile broadband? Especially when it's as cheap as 18p per megabyte. But Mokoena says that demand from NGOs operating in the country - and the multinationals in the rich mining towns of the northern Copperbelt justifies it financially.

"Somewhere between 3-5 per cent of all our network traffic is data," he explains, "Which is enough to make it a profitable business. The good thing is that because foreign investors are driving demand, ordinary Zambians are benefiting. We can develop services that everyone can use."

Mobile banking, using handset services over GPRS have been common for a long time, but increasingly younger people in the towns are finding themselves able to email and browse the web from their handsets.

Walking 5km a day for water

In another village, 15km deep into the bush where there are no roads, the women walk 5km a day to fetch water. They carry heavy buckets back on their heads. The head of the committee that's trying to set up a school is talking about how hard it is to take crops to nearby Zimba to sell.

Then he offers up his email address and asks us to stay in touch. As often as possible, he walks to the nearest town and catches a bus to Livingstone. There he goes to an internet cafe to stay in touch with his university educated sons and others who've left the village, and find important information online.

There are lots of NGOs developing life saving applications using the mobile internet in Africa, particularly for online health services and arming volunteers in rural areas with access to information that can help catch diseases early. For many people, though, when the internet comes, they use it in exactly the same way as everyone else.

Hopefully, once LearnAsOne has raised the money to build the children of Simakakata a school, they'll have a mobile internet device of their own before too long.

Find out more about LearnAsOne or follow it on Twitter


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