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View the documentBringing the Internet to Zambia

Bringing the Internet to Zambia

by Neil Robinson

Neil Robinson is a Senior Communication Software Engineer with ZAMNET Communication Systems Ltd. He has been working in Zambia for six years. This case study describes the work that led to installing a full Internet link in Zambia and the attempts to make the provision of Internet services a sustainable enterprise, independent of external donor funding


On 22 November 1994, Zambia became the fifth country in Africa (and the very first sub-Saharan country outside of South Africa) to have full access to the Internet, the world's biggest computer network. This achievement was made despite Zambia's official status as one of Africa's poorest nations and followed three years of development by the University of Zambia of an electronic mail network serving non-commercial interests within the country. It was also achieved in a country that lacks a Computer Science degree course and where advanced computer skills are scarce. However, the technological achievement is perhaps less important than the ability to meet the considerable costs of Internet connectivity from within and thus to establish a sustainable service. ZAMNET Communication Systems Limited is the company that has been established to do this.

Computer Skills in Zambia

Despite a steady increase in the numbers of computers in use in both government institutions and private companies, the number of skilled computer specialists working in Zambia is still desperately small. Top quality staff command high salaries and other benefits (housing and transport) that are beyond the reach of government-funded institutions and the majority of Zambian companies. Most of the top computer specialists work in the financial sector or for Zambia Consolidated Copper Mines in the (up until now) well-funded mining sector. There is a growing number of small computer sales and support companies in the capital, Lusaka, but the quality of service they provide is variable. Against such a background' the number of expatriate computer specialists working within Zambia is relatively high.

Zambia's highest national qualification in computing is a three-year computer studies diploma taught by Evelyn Hone College. The University of Zambia has no computer science department so people who wish to advance to degree level have to go outside of the country. The Mathematics Department in the School of Natural Sciences does provide a Mathematics and Computing degree but their department is desperately short of computers and is unable to provide the practical experience necessary in such a course. The locally produced graduates with the strongest computing background come from the Electronic Engineering Department of the School of Engineering. Many who succeed in acquiring the necessary skills and qualifications during training overseas fail to return to Zambia for very long, if at all.

The University of Zambia

The University of Zambia (UNZA) is the larger of Zambia's two universities (the other being the Copperbelt University in Kitwe). It has a student body of some 5,000 and approximately 500 academic staff. UNZA is wholly dependent on the Zambian government for its funding, although several schools within the University benefit from international donor support for their equipment requirements.

The University uses an old IBM 4361 mainframe computer for administrative computing requirements. The systems that run on this computer (personnel, payroll, admissions, examination systems, and so on) have all been written and are maintained by the University Computer Centre, a department of about 50 staff. Some 15 of these are technical programming and analysis staff. The rest are involved in the considerable data entry and computer operations requirements of such a mainframe-based system.

The Computer Centre is also responsible for providing technical support to computer users throughout the University. Up until about four years ago, this was largely confined to support for the mainframe computer to which students and staff were given access through a small terminal room at the Computer Centre. However, as elsewhere in Zambia, the number of microcomputers in use around campus has been growing steadily and the support requirement for the repair of hardware components and for the maintenance of microcomputer applications has also grown.

The vast majority of microcomputers within the University are donated and as such there is a diverse range of models and types of computers. However, in general, there are still far too few microcomputers to distribute access to the student level, and even in the mathematics department most student computer project work is carried out on the mainframe.

UNZA has recently embarked on a major project to downsize its administrative systems to a microcomputer-based network. A campus-wide fibre optic network is being installed to distribute the administrative tasks to the schools themselves. Once again donor supported (through the Dutch government), this should provide access to the first of the systems (student records) by the end of this year. It will also provide access for members of staff through departmental networks to the Internet, although the extent to which this happens will largely depend on the ability of each school to extend its own section of the campus network through its own buildings.


Since 1991, the Computer Centre at the University of Zambia has been the focal point for academic, non-governmental organization (NGO), and health-based email networks in Zambia. In that year, as a result of the International Development Research Centre (IDRC)-funded ESANET1 project, Zambia was given a microcomputer and modem to provide the hub or "host" of the first University email system. The very first recorded message through this system was sent to the Baobab, an African interests network based in Washington, D.C., on 30 September 1991. This and other international messages were initially routed through the Association for Progressive Communication (APC) network in London. The first recorded user of the system was the School of Medicine's Medical Library.

The rapid growth and development of what was then known as UNZANET was assisted by an arrangement with Rhodes University of Grahamstown, South Africa which, in November 1991, began providing a link with Internet via thrice-daily, computer-to-computer telephone calls. These were paid for by UNINET, the South African Universities Network funded by the Foundation for Research and Development (FRD). This arrangement remained until December 1994, when full Internet access was achieved and by which time some 270 email points were linked to the network.

The Early Technology

From the beginning UNZANET was a Fidonet system using dial-up telephone lines to transmit messages via dedicated host computers. When UNZANET was first established in 1991, Fidonet had been successfully tried and tested in Zimbabwe and in Kenya for NGO networks.2 Thus UNZANET was able to learn from the experiences of similar networks in the region and benefit from cooperation with them.

The UNZANET host system was configured to handle simultaneously three telephone lines attached to three separate modems. Two of these lines were direct external lines, while the third was an internal switchboard line for users on campus and with access to an internal telephone extension. The configuration of the Fidonet system remains in place today, primarily to serve rural users and those whose telephone lines are inadequate for interactive communication. It also serves users in advance of the completion of the campus network.

UNZANET'S Traditional Users

The original users of UNZANET were the schools and departments of the University. From the very beginning, a single site address or point number 3 was allocated to each school and administrative department. In the majority of cases, computers already existed in those departments and the email facility was installed using modems supplied as part of the ESANET project. Some of the computers used were old IBM personal computers, which were still perfectly adequate for email.

From very early on, it appeared to be inevitable and desirable that initiatives in academic networking would lead to collaborations with other sectors. Without expansion of the service into other, better-funded areas, the UNZANET system could never be sustainable. The development of a non-academic user base was encouraged especially for those users who had an immediate need for communication and for those who would have a growing need for communication in the future. These users would want to be part of a longer-term, more sustainable solution. However, with UNZANET's dependence upon donor support in mind, and particularly that of UNINET, the emphasis was always on non-commercial applications.

In Zambia, following the use at the University itself, there was widespread growth in the use of email among NGOs, health institutions, and aid or development agencies. Encouragement for the first two came about through external support, while the majority of aid and development agencies were able to fund the necessary infrastructure (modems, computers and telephone lines) themselves.

UNZANET'S Free Service

One of the reasons for the rapid growth of UNZANET was the fact that it was provided as a free service. Users only had to cover the cost of local calls into the UNZANET host or access the system through the University's internal switchboard. This allowed users to "taste" email and to experiment with it before they had to commit themselves to paying for the service. We feel that the growth of UNZANET would have been considerably slower had it been necessary to charge users from the beginning, although a culture of non-payment can have its disadvantages when a subscriber-funded service is introduced.

The Need for ZAMNET

Through the technical success of UNZANET, it was clear that email was a viable technology within Zambia. This was true not just for a rich urban elite, but also for smaller, less-wealthy organizations within Lusaka, the Copperbelt, and further afield. We had shown that email had the capacity to remove some of the communications barriers that otherwise engender a feeling of international isolation in professional communities. At the same time it was attractive to a large community of users outside of the academic sector. Email offered a fast, easy, and highly cost effective method of communicating compared to any other available technology. (See Box 1.)

However, a free service - provided through the generosity of others - could not be sustainable. The Computer Centre of the University, with its responsibilities to the University administration, was not in a position to sell and maintain a commercial service to customers from outside of the University, nor to pay the salaries of the high quality staff that such a service would require.

By the end of 1993, users were transmitting large volumes of international messages to and from the Internet, and there was a strong desire among users of UNZANET to expand the horizons of the system. The Internet was already expanding very rapidly: more and more data, journals, and information became available in electronic form; the nature of the information being offered broadened beyond the bounds of academic interest into business and recreation, and publicity about it was reaching the popular public media. The ability to transfer large files to and from other users; to directly access remote databases and electronic libraries; and to participate in electronic conferences and other peer group discussions had become of considerable interest both within and outside of the University.

To accommodate this growth and change in direction, the basic infrastructure of the UNZANET system and the way it was funded needed to be reviewed. The Computer Centre had already perceived the need for collaboration between the University and its fellow research institutions, as well as with the commercial and international organizations that had the resources to pay for the high quality, high volume access to information. Some of these other organizations were using UNZANET but, because they needed to transmit larger volumes of information more quickly, many had made their own direct links to their international head offices using a variety of electronic mail systems. Pooled access for these organizations to the Internet through a single service provider would clearly bring considerable cost savings, while improvements in speed and efficiency of communication, as well as the extra services available, would allow international organizations to better service their target communities.

BOX 1 Pooling Resources

At times it was suggested that the users in the NGO and health sectors should form their own networks (ZANGONET and HealthNet respectively) - independently of UNZANET. However, the need for a full-time system operator and the considerable advantages of pooling equipment and staff resources with UNZANET, dictated that both groups be maintained and administered from the university Computer centre. The advantages of such an arrangement are even more apparent under the current self-financing service, which enables non-commercial NGO's and health institutions to be subsidized to some degree by ZAMNET's 'commercial' customers.

The ZAMNET Proposal

By the middle of 1993, we made a decision to submit a proposal for donor funding to enable the University of Zambia to establish a direct link to the Internet. This was circulated among a number of major international donors but failed to attract any direct support. At the beginning of 1994, the University decided to establish a private campus company (ZAMNET Communication Systems Ltd.) to put in place the connection to the Internet and to sell access to the services that the Internet provides. Then the World Bank expressed interest in funding the ZAMNET project and agreed to fund 80 percent of the first year operating costs of the new company.

As a young campus company with no working capital aside from the grant from the World Bank, ZAMNET issued a nominal share holding, the major and controlling shareholder being the University itself. The board of directors is comprised of senior administrators from the University and the Deputy Minister of Health, with the Director of the Computer Centre as Managing Director.

The Budget

The project budget was estimated at $150,000 and covered the cost of:

· the leased data circuit to the chosen (cheapest) point of Internet access;· subscription paid to the service provider at that point;· extra hardware required to provide the Internet link and to provide a service to ZAMNET's customers;· hardware required to provide a training facility for ZAMNET's customers;· consultancy fees for technical Internet experts to assist in the configuration of the service; and· salaries for one administrator and two technical staff (to be met from customer fees from the beginning).

The Proposed Service

We intended to distribute Internet services to users throughout Zambia using a variety of methods including:

· local leased lines providing full Internet access to regular high-volume users with their own local area networks (LANs);· dial-up interactive access using SLIP or PPP for urban users on good quality telephone lines; and· Fidonet and perhaps UUCP access for users in rural areas where poor telephone quality prohibited interactive access.

We anticipated that Fidonet would continue to play an important role within Zambia providing as it did a quick, easy-to-use entry to electronic mail. It had already proved to be relatively cheap on remote trunk lines and generally reliable in a rural setting.

The Project Objectives

ZAMNET Communication Systems Ltd. came into being officially in February 1994, although it was unable to employ staff or provide a service to its customers until the following year. ZAMNET has the following objectives:

1) Put in place the hardware and technical support necessary to provide a reliable full Internet service. To do this, we would need to:

· establish a reliable link between the UNIX network at the University Computer Centre and an Internet service provider;· procure, install, and configure all necessary hardware to provide an Internet service;· provide an access point for customers to dial into the Internet with sufficient capacity to avoid congestion;· provide a software package for customers to use to access the Internet through ZAMNET;· connect the existing Fidonet service to the new Internet service, thus removing the dependence on the Fidonet-Internet gateway at Rhodes University;· develop locally based information services for local and international access;· provide a training facility and develop training courses for customers; and· produce or obtain user documentation for the system.

2) Put in place the administrative staff and procedures, and market the Internet service so that it would be fully self-sustaining after one year of operation, and after the World Bank funding had run out. To do this, we would need to:

· set up a computerized accounts system;· determine a pricing system; and· produce marketing materials (pamphlets, brochures, price lists, advertisements).


Although ZAMNET has been operating commercially for less than five months (at the time this report was written), the financial support from the World Bank is soon to come to an end. Thus, while in many ways the project is still ongoing, this is a good time to review progress on the ZAMNET objectives during the establishment of the Internet service to date.

Establishing the Link to the Internet

The establishment of the data communications link between Lusaka and (Cape Town, critical to our service, proved very slow and time consuming. The Internet Company of South Africa or TICSA (now Internet Africa) of Cape Town had already generously agreed to carry our Internet traffic for free (for the time being) when, in April 1994, we submitted the application to the Zambian PTT for a leased, four-wire, 9600 baud, designated data circuit between our own offices in Lusaka and the TICSA offices. After the necessary surveying work, we were notified that it would be commissioned in July 1994. However technical problems over the satellite link between the Zambian earth station at Mwembeshi and Johannesburg meant that the line was not available to us to test until October of that year. Unfortunately our problems were not over.

Our original choice of modem to serve both ends of our Internet link was the Telebit Worldblazer. We had good experience with Worldblazers through our work with the Fidonet system. However when we installed the leased four-wire data circuit between Lusaka and Cape Town, we did not know that the Worldblazer is purely a two-wire modem and, therefore, unsuitable for the type of circuit that we were using. Unfortunately our email messages (our cheapest and what should have been the easiest route to assistance) to Telebit often failed to solicit a response and it required several long distance telephone and fax calls to establish the facts and to find out what options were available to overcome this problem.

Our first solution was to install hybrids to convert the four-wire circuit to two-wire over the local segment of the circuit in Cape Town and Lusaka. Both the Zambian and South African PTTs were extremely helpful in immediately inserting hybrids into their circuits. However, the resulting signal contained too much echo for the Worldblazers to cope with and, despite the further insertion of echo suppressers into the circuit by the PTTs, the resulting signal was inadequate for the Worldblazers at either end of the circuit to communicate with each other.

Eventually, after seeking advice from various sources, we decided to purchase two (quite expensive at $1,100 each) Telebit Fastblazer modems through their South African agents. Despite the availability of email, communication with them proved as frustrating as trying to communicate with Telebit in the United States. However, eventually, two modems were purchased and installed. Alas our problems did not end there.

The line between Cape Town and Lusaka uses microwave technology as far as Johannesburg, satellite to the Lusaka earth station, microwave once again as far as Lusaka's main exchange, but then uses copper wire for the last six or seven kilometers to the University. The signal loss over this section is high and the signal coming from South Africa was already quite low. Over such a long distance, the quality of the line allocated between central Lusaka and the ZAMNET office was highly variable and it required some intensive work from the Zambian PTT to identify the very best connections to provide for our circuit. However on 22 November 1994 the line was finally strong enough to carry a signal from our mail server to the Internet and vice versa.

The line has since been quite reliable (above 95 percent), the modems training up to 14,400 baud. Although capable of connecting at 19,200 baud, it appears that the signal loss over the circuit as a whole will prevent us from achieving such speeds. When the data circuit does fail, the technical staff at the two PTTs (ZAMTEL in Zambia and TELKOM in South Africa) have been quick to respond and restore our circuit.

Procuring, Installing, and Configuring the Internet Hardware

Most problems encountered during the installation and configuration of the hardware were due to our own inexperience with UNIX and our ignorance of much of the technology with which we were dealing. The staff involved were subjected to a very steep learning curve and inevitably much of that learning was through our own mistakes. (See Box 2.)

The mail server

Through the RINAF (Regional Informatics Network for Africa) project, the University Computer Centre had received two identical Olidata (Olivetti) 486 computers. One of these was pressed into service as a new Fidonet host to cope with the rapidly growing number of users accessing that host. The other was set up on the Computer Centre network as a prospective mail server (

A copy of SCO UNIX was installed on puku and this machine was configured to run SENDMAIL (for mail delivery), to run a POP (post office protocol) server (for mail collection by ZAMNET's customers), and to exchange mail with the Fidonet host using UUCP. We experienced some difficulty finding free Internet applications software to run under SCO UNIX (a commercial product) and' when we employed an expert to assist in the configuration of our mail server, we were advised to switch to FreeBSD-2.0. This was done in December l994 - after the Internet connection had been commissioned.

FreeBSD is a relatively easy operating system to configure and to manage, but finding precompiled binary versions of Internet applications has proved difficult. Compilation of ports and patches is cumbersome for those inexperienced in UNIX and keeping abreast of the constant updates is time consuming. The only alternative free UNIX system that runs on a 486 personal computer is Linux. Having already started with FreeBSD, there are few advantages in switching at this stage.

Puku is now running as the ZAMNET name server, as well as the server for mail/POP, Gopher, and WWW. All of these services appear to be running quite well. However from a hardware point of view we have discovered that a system with eight megabytes of RAM and a 400 megabyte hard disk is insufficient to tackle the range of tasks and to serve the number of users that we are asking of puku. A gigabyte hard drive and 32 megabytes of RAM is essential on such pivotal system within an Internet service.

The router

The router required to connect ZAMNET to the rest of the Internet - a Cisco 3000 - was provided as part of the funding of the Zambian regional node by the RINAF project. ZAMNET itself purchased a transceiver to connect this router to the ethernet network. The Cisco gave no problems in terms of configuration; how ever since its installation two problems have arisen.

First, one of the primary requirements of the router is to provide statistics the can be used to bill ZAMNET customers who link their networks with ZAMNET' using locally leased data circuits. Such customers are billed for all traffic carried. The data to enable this kind of billing needs to be analyzed on another computer of the network that is running UNIX. We have yet to find any software to analyze this data that will run under the FreeBSD operating system on puku, our mail serve. The only such software that we have found is written for the SUN operating system (SUNOS) and we have since been advised that nobody would attempt to do Cisco accounting on a FreeBSD system!

The second problem is in trying to increase the speed of our link to the Internet. That link currently operates at 14,400 baud. It seems that by switching to an asynchronous connection using data compression it should be possible to increase the throughput of data on our link. To do this, however, the Cisco needs to have its auxiliary port configured to operate in asynchronous mode, which in turn requires a memory upgrade and a new version of the operating system to be loaded into the increased memory. With our whole system dependent on that one router we are somewhat reluctant to attempt this upgrade.

Providing Customer Access

To provide access to the Internet service to as many of ZAMNET's customers as possible simultaneously, 20 dial-up telephone lines configured as a hunting group were installed by the Zambian PTT, and a Livingston Portmaster 2e-30 with 30 configurable ports was purchased along with 20 Zyxel U-1496 modems to connect these lines to ZAMNET.

The telephone lines were installed when a new cable was being laid into the University and there were no problems in finding 20 new lines for ZAMNET. The hunting group is functioning well, although up until now (with 193 active, paying users as at the end of June 1995), we have rarely seen as many as seven of the lines in use at one time.

The modems that the ZAMNET customers dial into were purchased by mail order directly from Zyxel in California. Dealings with that company by email were very easy. The modems were purchased before the V34 (28,800 baud) standard had been ratified and they are all set to a maximum speed of 14,400 baud. However, given that this is also the maximum speed on our data circuit to the Internet, and that as yet there is no congestion on the dial-up lines, there is no disadvantage in restricting our customers to connections at this speed.

The Portmaster was chosen over a Telebit Netblazer on the grounds of its cheaper price and that its range of features was closer to our requirements. However we were unaware when purchasing the Portmaster that some of the software that is provided with it and that enables easy configuration and backup of the system would not run under the FreeBSD operating system that we are using on our mail server. The inability to back up the tables used to store user names and passwords has proved a serious weakness on two occasions when part of the user table was lost and had to be manually re-entered.

Provision of End User Software

For ZAMNET users continuing to use the existing Fidonet service or leasing local data circuits between their own LANs and ZAMNET, we did not need to provide any new software. The Fidonet installation had already been developed and proven over a number of years, while those linking through their own networks were responsible for their own software.

However' for our dial-up interactive customers we needed to find an easy-to-install, easy-to-use package for Windows, DOS, and Macs. When we found a set of books for each of these three categories, complete with software diskettes, we thought we had found the solution. However, we discovered that the DOS software contained a hard-coded login script that did not match the prompts provided by our Portmaster; the Mac software would not run on the systems on which we attempted to install it; and the Windows software contained frustrating bugs in its Mail program.

Software for DOS

The package distributed to DOS users is a slightly modified version of the SLIP/MINUET package developed by the University of Minnesota. While not as attractive as the Windows software, it does contain an easy-to-use mail program and a Gopher client. It lacks a WWW client and we are investigating how DOSLynx (a WWW client for DOS) might be integrated into the installation.

Software for Windows

After the frustrations encountered above, we borrowed the package distributed by GreenNet in London for their own PPP customers. Their package is based on shareware versions of the Trumpet Winsocket Manager, Eudora as a mail client, Netscape as a WWW client, plus FTP and Telnet clients. We modified this package for our own system and developed our own installation program. This package is stable, easy-to-install and has been found to be easy to use by our customers.

Software for Macs

The vast majority of computer users in Zambia use DOS-based computers. Consequently, providing support for the few Mac customers that ZAMNET has, has proved very difficult. The package distributed to Mac users is a combination of the diskette provided with the Internet Tour Guide and a second diskette obtained from GreenNet that they distribute to their own Mac users. The resulting package includes the Eudora mail client and Netscape and is very similar in its two main components to the Windows package. ZAMNET still does not possess its own Mac and so streamlining the installation is still some way off. Even copying the two distribution diskettes requires a visit to one of the two private individuals on campus who use Macs!

Integration of Fidonet and the Internet

When the Internet link was established in November 1994, we had just three weeks in which to commission the gateway between the Fidonet host and the mail server before UNINET started charging us for the use of their own gateway. On the recommendation of Bob Barad of the Baobab, we installed the new GIGO package and were pleased to find that it was very easy to install and configure, and what's more, it worked. Rhodes University had given us an experimental UUCP account and, for the three weeks prior to cutover, we polled (generated a computer call to) the Rhodes WCP host on a regular basis. We encountered no problems with this link and the modification of the software to enable connections between the Fidonet host and our own mail server went equally well.

The only disadvantage of the link at this stage is that it requires a modem and telephone line to be dedicated to the mail server for the UUCP connections (none of our users use UUCP directly). Even using local phone calls at 14,400 baud the telephone bill for this exchange of mail between adjacent personal computers is quite high. It would be better to move this mail over the LAN if possible.

Development of Local Information Services

The ZAMNET Gopher

In December 1994, a Gopher server was set up ( with a menu structure covering Agriculture, Engineering, Health, Communications and Networking, and ZAMNET News and Information. This proved to be a very useful way of publicizing our work and making contact and service information available to potential customers and other interested parties around the world. We also found the Gopher useful for advising our customers of the latest developments (or problems) on ZAMNET.

As customers became aware of the potential of the ZAMNET Gopher for the distribution of local information, they expressed an interest in storing their own information within its menus. To date a number of customers are paying for disk space on our Gopher server at the nominal rate of $1.00 per megabyte per month. For example:

· the National Farmers Union is providing weekly Agricultural Commodity Exchange prices;· the Ministry of Agriculture posts regular food security and marketing bulletins, and· the Engineering Institute of Zambia is publishing a range of information about the institute and its activities.

The Worldwide Web server

Our knowledge of the Internet has grown end we are aware of the rapid growth of the Worldwide Web (WWW) and the trend towards storing more information in hypertext form. Around April 1995, we installed our own WWW server. The ZAMNET homepage is accessible as and contains pointers to information about Zambia, about ZAMNET, to the ZAMNET Gopher, and to a small but growing number of pages developed for ZAMNET's customers. For example:

· articles from the Post Newspaper are currently published twice weekly before the paper actually reaches the streets;· the Zambia National Tourist Board has published information about travel and tourism, and· the University of Zambia has published the text of a short leaflet giving background information about the University.

We plan to develop all of these areas. In particular several commercial customers are interested in posting information about their companies and services within our WWW pages.

Provision of Training Facilities and Courses

When ZAMNET was formed in 1994, it occupied one small office within the Computer Centre. In April 1995 we got our own offices that include a training room with capacity for nine networked personal computers. The room was equipped in May with seven multimedia Compaq personal computers and we have set aside three mornings per week to provide training to ZAMNET customers.

In addition, this facility has been used to provide sensitization seminars to the staff, deans, and administration from each of the schools at the University. When not in use for training, it is open for these members of University staff to book for an hour at a time, and is also open for members of the public to use at a rate of $7.00 per hour.

User Documentation

The Internet is a new concept to many people in Zambia and there are few books or magazines about it in the bookshops in the country. Since it is important for customers to have access to information that helps them make the best use of the service they are buying, we decided to provide a book, The Internet Tour Guide, with the ZAMNET subscription. In practice, as explained above, the software included with the books has not been very useful and the books are very American in style and language. However, there are few alternatives until we can produce our own software specific guides. We have spent some time producing detailed installation instructions for the software that we distribute and these certainly appear to have reduced the number of queries that we field during customer installation.

Computerized Accounting

The initial chart of accounts was put together by an accountant who has subsequently kept an eye on our progress. We are using Mind Your Own Business (MYOB), a small business accounting package developed in the United States. While quite easy to use, it has been not been adaptable to the multicurrency system we operate (we accept payment in Zambian Kwacha and in U.S. Dollars). We are considering replacing it with a package better suited to our own particular requirements.

Determining a Pricing System

No two Internet service providers use the same method to charge for their services. Our own method of arriving at our fees was to draw up the budget over the next few years; decide how much emphasis we wanted to put on the basic subscription, the cost of international electronic mail, and the cost of connect time, estimate the number of customers and projected growth rate in each category; and to fiddle with the parameters until we could be sure of breaking even within one year.

Since we need to support our traditional users, we added a two-tier pricing structure for commercial and one for non-commercial customers. The resulting fee structure - which entails a signing-on fee, a basic monthly subscription, a per kilobyte charge for international email, and a per hour charge for connect time - has been well received within the country, although we have received some criticism from without. We are always reviewing these fees and plan to increase the free connect time to two hours per month. As yet ZAMNET is not sufficiently financially sound for any radical discounting of the prices.

Marketing of the Product

To promote ZAMNET to a largely unaware population, we employed a graphic artist to produce a leaflet and eight page brochure. This determined the "corporate image" of ZAMNET and its style has been copied on price lists, business cards, and advertisements. Over 1,000 brochures have been distributed so far. Advertisements have been placed in the Times of Zambia, Productive Farming, and Profit Magazine. However such has been the interest in the Internet that ZAMNET has benefited from free publicity in articles in all three of Zambia's leading newspapers, plus a lead article in Profit Magazine.

Staff Recruitment

The recruitment of the administrator/bookkeeper with a full Association of Accounting Technicians qualification and solid accounting experience proved a lot easier than the recruitment of the technical staff, although an initial plan to recruit a part time administrator was revised when it was fully appreciated just how much would be involved in administering the ZAMNET service. (See Box 3.)

Of only 30 applicants for the post of communications technician, six were suitable to interview. Few of these had UNIX experience, and none had any practical experience with internetworking technology. While one member of staff was recruited from the Computer Centre and had been involved in the development of the system from the beginning, the only external recruit is very much learning as he goes along.

BOX 2 Danger from Lightning Strikes

A real problem during Zambia's rainy season is the threat of high intensity lightning strikes. All telephone lines and the leased data circuit to cape Town are protected from lightning strikes using a surge protection box that diverts current surges down a thick copper wire into a copper stake driven into the ground outside of the equipment room. So far this system has thankfully not been tested by such a lightning strike.

BOX 3 ZAMNET Salaries

Even at the relatively (for Zambia) high salaries being offered by ZAMNET, recruitment of the right quality staff was difficult. The package on offer of a two year contract with a salary but no fringe benefits was perhaps not so attractive in a country where housing and transport costs are so high and many employers still provide housing (or housing allowances) and transport to senior information technology professionals.


As part of the billing process it has been necessary to gather comprehensive statistics about the use of the ZAMNET system from the very beginning. A very simple analysis of the connection time and email statistics reveals very rapid growth of the service. ZAMNET is growing at roughly the rate of one new account each day and at the current rate this will lead to ZAMNET more than doubling in size over the next twelve months.

Table 1 shows the growth in the number of interactive accounts and the connect time that those accounts have generated. Growth has been constant - with accounts connecting to ZAMNET for an average of just over four hours per month, although the average number of connections per month has increased from 38 in March to 46 in June. This increase perhaps reflects the increased regular use of the system for electronic mail rather than Internet browsing.

Table 2 shows the steady growth in the volume of email, although it should be noted that the mail volumes include mail from the Fidonet system which, unlike the connect time data, would have been present before March. Nonetheless the volume of international mail being sent has nearly doubled in two months. This does not include incoming mail. Interestingly, while the volume of mail to international destinations has increased steadily the volume of mail to local users has remained nearly constant, perhaps reflecting the international requirements of the newer users, and the benefits of ZAMNET in economizing over traditional communication methods (fax, telephone and courier).

TABLE 1 Growth of ZAMNET by Month, January 1995 to June 1995


Number of Accounts

Number of Connections

Total Connect Time





















TABLE 2 Growth of ZAMNET by Month, March 1995 to May 1995
































A Breakdown of the Users

The majority of urban users of the non-commercial Fidonet service prior to ZAMNET's formation have now subscribed to the Interactive service. Those remaining with Fidonet include
· Users in rural areas (notably the health community) from where telephone calls to Lusaka are expensive, and telephone line quality is often too weak to support interactive communication.· University users who will remain on the Fidonet system until the installation of the campus network has been completed.· Long term users of the Fidonet system who are due to leave Zambia shortly and therefore do not wish to upgrade to the new interactive service.· Some United Nations agencies that are currently planning to connect their own network directly to ZAMNET with a local leased data circuit but, in the interim, would prefer to continue to use the technology with which their users are familiar.

Looking at the geographical and categorical breakdown of the Fidonet and interactive subscribers, it is clear that the vast majority of users of both systems are Lusaka based. (See Table 3.) While this is not surprising, the significantly smaller concentration of users on the Copperbelt, Zambia's other major urban area, is more unusual and perhaps can be explained by the greater difficulty in fully supporting a service to users who are based outside of Lusaka. It will be necessary to consider a point of presence on the Copperbelt to rectify this and also to consider ways in which greater support can be provided to rural users.

TABLE 3 Users by Province





Lusaka Province








Southern Province




Western Province




Eastern Province




Northern Province




Northwestern Province




Luapula Province




Central Province








Analysis of the new interactive subscribers by category is particularly difficult. (See Table 4.) Beyond learning that companies are commercial, no attempt has been made to determine the line of work in which a subscribing company is involved. Many of the private individuals joining ZAMNET as non-commercial subscribers are attached to development organizations or international NGOs and use their points professionally. Again we have made no attempt to survey the uses made of email and so further analysis is impossible.

TABLE 4 Users by Category









































Tech Training




















Apart from the 55 private individual accounts and 46 commercial accounts, the largest category among the rest of the accounts is in health. As indicated by the number of accounts still using Fidonet, many health and agriculture accounts were users of the previous non-commercial service. Since the new ZAMNET service was put in place there has been a growing interest from a number of religious organizations active in Zambia (most of whom have head offices in the United States or Europe), and encouragingly recent interest from the Ministries of Finance and of Foreign Affairs.


ZAMNET has received very positive feedback from its customers within and outside of Zambia. Zambian expatriates write to us saying how proud they feel that Zambia is only the fifth African country to establish a full Internet service. Starved of information about their home country, they are eager to see expanded news and information services through ZAMNET.

ZAMNET customers within Zambia are particularly pleased with the cost savings that communicating by email has brought. With international telephone calls to North America and Europe billed at $7.00 per minute, the ability to make a cheap local telephone call and send an email message for about 20 cents per page is very attractive. To find that this message is delivered reliably and within minutes is an added bonus. (See Box 4.)

Media Coverage

As the Internet has received more and more coverage in the international media, ZAMNET has correspondingly come under the spotlight within Zambia. The Zambia Daily Mail, the Times of Zambia, and the Weekly Post have all published articles about the Internet and its arrival in Zambia (the Post subsequently subscribing to the ZAMNET service). Profit Magazine, Zambia's leading business magazine published a full leading article about ZAMNET complete with a front page image of some example WWW pages captured from the Internet.

The Zambia National Broadcasting Corporation has regular computing and business programs that make reference to information technology and the Internet. We hope that a full interview with the Managing Director of ZAMNET will be broadcast soon, while plans exist to connect ZNBC to ZAMNET in the near future.

Further afield, the efforts that Zambia has made to provide an email service and to establish a full Internet connection have been mentioned several times on the African service of the BBC World Service. In fact when the BBC began using email and started accepting questions to their Pop Science program, the very first email question that they received came from an email user in Ndola, Zambia.

BOX 4 Email to Fax Service

ZAMNET has recently reached an agreement with GreenNet in London that allows ZAMNET customers to send email messages to fax machines. These messages are delivered to London via the Internet and are then delivered from there at the cost of the delivering phone call. For faxes to Europe and to North America, this results in a total fax cost of less than 50 cents per page. An informative acknowledgment email message confirms to the sender whether or not the fax has been delivered. Delivery times are usually less than 20 minutes after the email has been sent, which is perfectly satisfactory for ZAMNET's customers.


Just four months after the ZAMNET product was made available to the public, its existing infrastructure is already creaking. Its communications link to the rest of the Internet is becoming congested at certain times of the day. Its mail server is overloaded and does not have the memory or disk capacity to cope with a significant increase in either the number of ZAMNET customers, or in the number of Internet users from outside of Zambia accessing its information services. Without a doubt the main area where ZAMNET might have been launched differently was in its technical capacity.

Capital Funding

ZAMNET's initial budgets should have been significantly higher and included items vital to the provision of a high quality, high volume' large customer base service. Namely, in hindsight, we should have begun with a SUN workstation, VSAT communications, a router capable of handling asynchronous communication, and a full set of equipment to provide backup in the event of system failures. While these items would have increased the initial cost of ZAMNET significantly, repayment of that cost could have been spread over a number of years.

Staff Training

Providing technical support from a position of considerable inexperience has been difficult. While the staff currently in place are learning fast, sustainability of the ZAMNET service is not only dependent upon them but also on the availability of suitable staff to supplement and replace the existing staff in the future. With this in mind there needs to be greater opportunities for Zambians to learn about Internet technology without having to travel outside of the region.


ZAMNET is providing an important and much needed service to all sectors of Zambian society:

· businesses and industries need a fast, reliable and economical communications system in order to compete within the newly liberalized Zambian economy;· international development organizations need to keep in regular touch with their projects in the field and their head offices overseas;· the academic sector and researchers need access to the latest research and need to keep abreast of international developments in their field;· government ministries need an efficient means of communication with district and provincial offices in the fields of agriculture, health and education; and· private individuals wish to keep in touch with their friends abroad or simply wish to use the Internet as a vast encyclopedia.

Both commercial and non-commercial customers have shown a willingness to pay the fees that ZAMNET has set in order to cover the considerable costs of its service.

Because its customers now rely upon its service, ZAMNET needs to ensure its future both technically and economically. At the current, very fast growth rate, the system will be overstretched within twelve months, by which time the customer base should have more than doubled to over 600 accounts. The resulting reduced performance could seriously damage the positive image of ZAMNET. Meanwhile the lack of technical backup within the system leaves the whole service vulnerable in the event of an equipment failure. The downside of this is the capital expenditure involved in safeguarding against possible disasters. ZAMNET urgently needs to look at ways it can improve and upgrade its services.

Increasing the Bandwidth

The capacity of the Internet link between Lusaka and Cape Town will not be able to support 20 simultaneously connected users without a significant and noticeable deterioration in performance. The most promising option for increasing the capacity of this link appears to be a direct VSAT link from the ZAMNET offices in Lusaka to our Internet service provider in Cape Town, or failing that, an alternative link direct to the United States or United Kingdom. Although continued cooperation with counterparts in the region would be desirable, progress in negotiations with Telkom (the South African PTT) have not been productive so far. Based on the cost estimates provided so far, we know that the hardware costs of a VSAT link, plus annual rental and license fees should prove cheaper than the line we are leasing from ZAMNET and TELKOM at a cost of over $60,000 per year. The disadvantages of this strategy will be the expertise expected of the technical support staff and the cost of paying for both the existing and the VSAT link during the transition. Indeed it may be desirable to maintain the existing link to provide redundancy in the event of failure of the VSAT connection.

Increasing Dial-up Access

With the current customer base, we have rarely observed more than eight ports on the Portmaster modem server active simultaneously. Further expansion to serve 600 customers, while also accommodating increased activity among the existing users, is likely to put severe pressure on our dial-up. This expansion can only be accommodated through the purchase of a second modem server and a further batch of dial-up telephone lines. Over the next year a number of leased line customers will also subscribe to ZAMNET thus putting further pressure on the number of free ports available on the existing system.

Covering for Equipment Failures

The current system is highly vulnerable in the event of any kind of equipment failure. ZAMNET service would be lost in the event of:

· the loss of the leased line modem at either end of the data circuit that links ZAMNET to the Internet;· the loss of the router linking the ZAMNET LAN to the Internet; or· the loss of the Portmaster providing local access to the Internet to ZAMNET customers.

None of this equipment is readily available within Zambia and, even if finances were available, the resulting loss of service while replacements were being shipped from abroad could last for several days and have a serious impact on the image of ZAMNET among its customers. Spare items to replace those listed above would cost about $8,000.

Increase Capacity on Mail and Information Servers

The current mail server is running on a 40 MHz 486 PC with just 8 megabytes of RAM and a 400 megabyte hard disk and is already overloaded. As the number of customers and the volume of local information being provided to users outside of Zambia increases, the burden on this machine will also increase. A second machine is currently being configured as a News Server to accommodate the growing number of useful log files that the system generates. However this machine is itself only a 25 MHz personal computer, albeit with a one gigabyte hard drive.

ZAMNET needs to invest in a much more powerful personal computer with at least 32 megabytes of RAM and another high capacity hard drive. Ideally ZAMNET would seek to obtain a SUN workstation or equivalent, which is capable of running some of the software needed for maintaining the Portmaster and for monitoring traffic passing through the Cisco router. However the cost of such a SUN machine would be $10,000 or more!

Expanding the Range of Provided Services

There is an immediate need to provide a News Server to enable ZAMNET's customers to participate in the many discussion groups available over the Internet. Work to configure such a Server is currently under way, although the impact of a full news feed on the limited bandwidth of the Internet connection has yet to be determined. It is likely that such a feed would be dependent on the implementation of the VSAT link.

As the Internet develops further, other applications will be developed and ZAMNET needs to be in a position to make these applications available to its customers (within the limitations of the bandwidth of its Internet connection). Current examples include "Real Audio" and the ability to communicate by voice over the Internet.

Increasing Technical and Administrative Support

ZAMNET currently employs just three staff, one administrator and two technical support staff. This team is severely stretched in its efforts to provide support and to develop the ZAMNET staff. We have decided to employ an assistant administrator to ease the workload.

With the anticipated growth, it will be important for ZAMNET to employ at least one additional skilled and experienced technical member of staff within the next twelve months. With both the contracts of the ZAMNET technical staff due for renewal at the same time, the possible impact of these employees departing at the end of their contracts also needs to be anticipated.

Looking Forward

This chapter was written in June 1995 and I want to provide a quick update. By January 1996, ZAMNET had grown to accommodate 417 interactive accounts. These accounts generated 9,558 connections totaling 1,600 hours of connect time and 12,862 international messages. This is a growth rate of 100 percent in just eight months. We have taken several steps to ease the growing congestion on both the Internet link and the server computers and to provide protection in the event of system failures:

We ordered the VSAT terminal equipment and it has been shipped from the United States. We need to complete some administrative procedures before it can be used but we hope that a 64 kilobaud VSAT connection direct from ZAMNET's offices to Johannesburg will be operational before the end of March 1996.

We maintain the Portmaster users table on the WWW server machine using Livingston's Radius software.

We moved the WWW server from the mail server to a second computer, which has been configured as a News Server, although we still do not receive a full news feed from the Internet. We just ordered a new mail server (a Pentium 120 with 32 megabytes of RAM and a 2 gigabyte hard drive).

We have recruited a new assistant administrator.

Within the next year ZAMNET plans to increase the number of access telephone lines to 40 and purchase an extra 20 V34 modems and a second Portmaster to serve these lines; employ two additional technical staff, a marketing manager, and another junior administrator; and provide local telephone access to customers based in the Copperbelt.

We have proven that the provision of an Internet service is viable and can pay for itself. The costs of expansion require capital expenditure and' ultimately' an injection of capital from investors either in the form of loans or in the broadening of shareholding is required. Most importantly, however, several months before the end of the World Bank funding, ZAMNET is self-sufficient and is able to buy new equipment from its own funds and to guarantee repayment on any loans it requires. This healthy position should enable ZAMNET to significantly reduce its fees within the next three months and to continue to expand services to meet it customers' demands.


1. The East and Southern African Academic Network (ESANET) is described more fully in Musisi's case study in this volume.
2. Moussa Fall gives a more detailed description of Fidonet in his case study in this volume.
3. Each member of the Fidonet system has a unique address. This address identifies the zone, the host, and the node. The point number will ensure that a message gets to a specific user in the node's subsystem.