MTN is planning a major network upgrade in Zambia in the first six months of 2006 as it sought to take on market leader Celtel, a top company official said yesterday.

MTN, which bought Telecel Zambia in June and vowed to invest US$70 million (R423.5 million) to expand its network and win more subscribers, said it had procured equipment to start upgrading its infrastructure.

MTN-Zambia chief executive Mike Blackburn said the company planned to overtake Celtel and aimed to cover 70 percent of the country's 10 million population.

"We commit to invest $70 million over two years to upgrade our network in order to cover all cities, towns and villages in Zambia," Blackburn said.

Blackburn said MTN-Zambia would be seeking to provide cellular services to rural areas where no modern telecommunications services existed. "The rapid roll out of the upgraded network in the first half of 2006 will ensure that MTN retains leadership position in network quality. For the last six months Zambians have already started experiencing a renaissance in telecommunications."

Blackburn said MTN, Africa's biggest cellular operator, would introduce several new products, including cheaper handsets, and said it had already started reducing telephone tariffs.

Market leader Celtel-Zambia, which is majority owned by Kuwaiti operator MTC, has 450 000 subscribers, while MTN-Zambia had a subscriber base of 90 000 in October. Blackburn said the number had grown, but he gave no further details.