Zimbabwe, with an estimated subscriber base of 600 000 for its three mobile cellular phone companies, is still lagging behind in mobile phone technology, Econet Wireless' chief executive officer has said.

Douglas Mboweni told analysts last week the combined subscriber base for his company, state-owned Tel*One and Telecel was still below 600 000. Zimbabwe has a population of more than 12 million people.

The shortage of new lines has resulted in the proliferation of the black market for cellular phone lines. While the price of a pre-paid line is controlled at ZD350 000, the product is fetching between ZD2.5 million and ZD3.5 million on the black market.

"We do not question the demand right now. Lines are literally swallowed the moment they are put on the market. It is an embarrassment to us that we are failing to meet demand," Mboweni said.

"There is nothing we can do about the parallel market. We have approached the regulators for help, but I think there is nothing they can do either," he added.

Econet, which has embarked on a programme to increase its subscriber base to 500,000 from around 280,000, has emerged the largest service provider.

The government-owned Net*One was the first to launch its network in 1996 and was followed by Telecel in 1997.

Mboweni said 75 percent of the planned new base station sites have been built since the company embarked on its network expansion programme intended to double its subscriber base by year-end. The expansion, the largest ever since Econet launched its network in June 1998, is expected to cost up to $200 billion. Econet expects to commission 120 base stations countrywide by December.