From luxury to essentials: Latin America strengthens Internet access in the event of a pandemic


BOGOTA / RIO DE JANEIRO – Snuggled up on a red tablet loaned by their school, Mercedes Ortiz’s two children study from their home in a hillside slum outside Bogota – a novelty for the family after several blockages from the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) without internet access or technological devices.

“With the schools closed for the year, my son and daughter have missed out on their education because I only have internet access on my cell phone when I have data,” said Ms Ortiz, a Venezuelan migrant who is came to the Colombian capital for three years. since.

The pandemic has highlighted a deep digital divide – defined as the gap between those who have reliable and affordable broadband internet access and devices like tablets, smartphones and computers, and those who do not have or have a limited access.

In Latin America and the Caribbean, three in 10 people – 244 million – do not have internet, according to a 2020 study by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) that examined 24 of 33 countries in the region.

The pandemic has meant that people without technology or the internet, especially migrants and people in rural areas and slums, have found it difficult to work remotely, access online courses and medical appointments or to register for government grants.

But COVID-19 has also spurred government action in the region to bridge the digital divide and ensure more people, like the Ortiz family, have access to digital services.

“It’s not just the awareness, but also the understanding that governments need to wake up and do something,” said Shamika Sirimanne, head of technology and logistics at the United Nations agency for the trade and development (UNCTAD).

“It’s like a tipping point,” she said.

In Colombia, a law passed in July declared the Internet an “essential public service”, meaning that “its importance and necessity for Colombians is comparable to that of water, electricity and gas,” he said. Colombian President Ivan Duque said.

The law requires telecom operators to guarantee customers internet service and to provide minimal browsing and free text packages for health and other emergencies.

This follows a similar law passed in Chile and a decree announced in Argentina last year making the internet “a public service” during COVID-19 shutdowns.

Peru, Brazil and Argentina are all considering laws that would make the Internet an essential public service, according to World Bank tech expert Doyle Gallegos.

“It all really started last year in Latin America,” said Gallegos, senior digital development specialist at the World Bank.

“It is truly a proclamation that providing Internet access to all citizens is essential and a high priority for the government,” he said.

In the United States, a bipartisan group of senators and the White House are debating extending a program to help low-income Americans access broadband by including it in the 1.2 infrastructure package. trillion dollars passed this month.

The pandemic has also prompted countries, including Peru, Argentina, Chile and Colombia, to introduce other measures to boost free internet access.

This included the loan of free tablets to teachers and students, the extension of free Wi-Fi hotspots in public areas and “zero-rated” services where certain government, health and education are not counted against a user’s data limits.

During the pandemic, regulators and governments altered regulations “essentially with the stroke of a pen” to ensure people weren’t cut off from internet services, Mr. Gallegos said.

“For too long, access to the Internet and to devices, such as smartphones and laptops, has been viewed as non-essential, and in some cases even luxury services,” he added.

New laws declaring the Internet as a basic service are “a good start”, but must be supported by measures to reduce the high cost of Internet services in low-income countries, said UN Sirimanne.

“If you don’t have internet access, you don’t have a digital economy,” she said. “You are cut off from the productive sector. ”

According to the UN, 1 gigabyte of data should cost no more than 2% of an average monthly income for the internet to be affordable, but in countries like Colombia, internet access can cost more than 10% of the average monthly income. monthly income of the poorest citizens of the country. .

In Brazil, Congress passed a law in February that would transfer about 3.5 billion reais ($ 650 million) to states to provide Internet access to poor public school students by purchasing data plans and tablets.

“We have 18 million socially vulnerable students, and six million who cannot attend (online) classes because they do not have internet access,” the Thomson Reuters Israel Batista told the Foundation. , one of the many opposition congressmen who helped draft the bill.

But Brazil’s far-right President Jair Bolsonaro vetoed the law in May – a decision later overturned by Congress – and then challenged it in the Supreme Court.

In August, Mr. Bolsonaro issued an executive order indefinitely delaying the transfer of federal funds for Internet access to states.

“What (Bolsonaro) wants is to postpone (the transfer) as much as possible, because if by the end of December the states have not spent it, they have to return it,” said Luis Claudio Araujo, professor. of Constitutional Law at Ibmec University of Brazil.

Brazil’s economy and education ministers have warned Congress of the financial risks of the law, a spokesperson for the education ministry said in a statement.

The government “has spared no effort in trying to universalize Internet access to students who need these public policies,” they said.

The pandemic has highlighted the digital divide between rural and urban areas, but also between city dwellers in affluent neighborhoods and those living in slums, said Gallegos.

In many large cities in South America, there is good 4G internet coverage, but poor residents can rarely afford to connect, he added.

“The issue of digital inclusion is not only urban versus rural, but it’s high income versus low income, it’s gender related, it’s disability related,” he said. .

Governments forming partnerships with private telecommunications companies and offering financial incentives, such as tax breaks, to build infrastructure in rural areas can help bridge the digital divide, Gallegos said.

“A stronger relationship between the private and the public is what will really make the difference and create Internet access for all,” he explained.

Tech entrepreneur Charvel Chedraui, who founded Wayru – an internet service provider start-up – said telecommunications companies in Latin America view expanding internet access in rural areas as too risky and expensive.

Investing in internet infrastructure, such as fiber optic cables, antennas and cell towers with 5G, rarely pays off, he said, so governments must step in.

“If governments don’t put the infrastructure and the funding in place, then it’s just talk,” Chedraui said. – Anastasia Moloney and Fabio Teixeira Foundation / Thomson Reuters

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