Ending Latin America’s Digital Divide

Recent statistics from Internet World Stats rank Latin America at the top for Internet user growth over the last decade. Unfortunately, if we consider Internet penetration ratio as a key factor to analyze usage across the globe, the region is ranked at the bottom.

LATINCOM 2011, the most important conference on communications in Latin America, is scheduled to be held in Belém, Pará, Brazil, from October 24 to 26. It will provide “an opportunity for the Latin American academic and industrial community to present their research in all areas of communications and networking,” according to a promo on the host Website. It will also offer a chance for the rest of the globe to examine and benefit from R&D efforts in the region and create investment opportunities for businesses.

The opportunities in Latin America for sales growth are huge for equipment manufacturers and telecom services providers. Brazil, for instance, is making plans for significant capital expansion in the telecommunications area as it prepares to host the FIFA World Cup in 2014. Paulo Bernardo Silva, the minister of planning and budget, said recently that the government wants Internet access available in 70 percent of Brazilian homes by 2014, compared with today's 27 percent.

As a member of the Technical Program Committee (TPC) for LATINCOM 2011, I have some insight into recent research in the area of how the current digital divide is affecting businesses and individuals in the region. The level of awareness about the utility of the Internet in the region is increasing; governments, enterprises, industry observers, and potential users throughout Latin America recognize the advantages of having access to broadband connections. They have experienced directly the limitations lack of access is imposing on their activities.

Many across the region, for example, believe the Internet is a wonderful tool for supporting and improving public services and businesses. The always-on nature of the Internet could facilitate growth, grease the wheels of economic expansion, and improve educational curricula, as well as healthcare delivery. People across Latin America know the actual potential of the Internet is not what they are seeing because of the limitations imposed by the slow adoption of broadband connections, despite significant progress in mobile technologies.

Unfortunately, despite recent achievements in infrastructure improvements, there are still many obstacles to the fast deployment of broadband connections in Latin America. The mobile networks and civil infrastructure required for antenna deployment are insufficient, creating a sort of digital divide between those who have access to these and those who don't. Companies and research institutions are getting involved in the efforts to eliminate these divides with innovative programs and products for end users in residential and business locations.

For end users, a new generation of smartphones from companies like Thuraya are coming to the market, bringing the automatic capability to hook up mobile and satellite networks, depending on the signal available. This provides end users with total coverage, at least for voice, and helps them avoid problems related to weather conditions.

In addition, vendors are marketing portable IP satellite modems that deliver anytime/anywhere broadband access based on satellite connections that offer special features to reduce latency. Next-generation equipment like this will help close the digital divide wall created by lack of infrastructure. To increase adoption, service providers are ensuring the costs of these satellite offerings are similar to regular mobile products — it's a time-sensitive solution to speed up access deployment.

There's a major incentive for service providers and the government in Brazil to increase spending on wireless and broadband communications: the 2014 FIFA World Cup. This major international event will require specialized infrastructure to boost broadband access in Brazil, and it is easy to see how the World Cup will accelerate the spread of digital services throughout Latin America.

21 comments on “Ending Latin America’s Digital Divide

  1. Edmunds Sinevics
    August 5, 2011

    Pleasant, that also Latin America seeks to reduce the digital divide. It is interesting, that the cellular and satellite networks compete in broadband communications.

  2. itguyphil
    August 5, 2011

    Being that most of the Latin American/Caribbean countries are not too far off of the Southern coastlines of the US, I would think that the coverage would reach with the right signal repeaters soemwhere in between? Or is this a matter of nationalism and bureaucracy?

  3. t.alex
    August 6, 2011

    Wow, IP satellite modem? Sounds like some military communication rather than normal users'.

  4. Edmunds Sinevics
    August 6, 2011

    Thuraya have a satellite IP modem, offering speeds of up to 444 kbps.

  5. Nemos
    August 7, 2011

    I hope the 2014 FIFA World Cup can cause the necessary technological blooming for Latin America and give to the people equal changes to the digital information. I found very interesting the fact that new technologies such as satellite internet  help to cover the lack of GSM and land lines infrastructures but does it cost too much for the regular users?  

  6. Taimoor Zubar
    August 7, 2011

    Interesting post, Matteo. What is the average cost of internet connection to households in Brazil or in Latin America in general? You mentioned about companies like Thuraya entering the market and providing satellite internet connectivity. I suspect the cost of satellite connection may be fairly high. Besides the infrastructure development, I think it's also important for government to take measures to reduce the internet cost to users. This is one way of increasing internet penetration. This can be achieved by providing subsidy on internet connections. I think the resultant boom in the economy brought through e-commerce may justify this expenditure.

  7. Daniel
    August 8, 2011

    Edmunds, most of the 3G smart phone has data speed of 3.2 Mbps and above. In such case I don’t know why Thuraya is coming up with modem having speed of 444 Kbps. It ends up in technology outrage only.

  8. Houngbo_Hospice
    August 8, 2011

    Brazil still has a long way to go to reach the goal of expanding its broadband internet access from 27 percent to 70 percent. Also the adoption by the population will depend on the access fees. Brazil is surely a growing economy, but I wonder if a major part of the population can afford the services. Also, priority should be given to the cities that host the 2014 world cup because trying to cover all the country by 2014 may not be realistic.

  9. Matteo Bertozzi
    August 8, 2011

    It's a good point t.alex.

    Generally speaking, several applications and techs for civil usage come from military research; it also important to consider IP protocol and first core of worldwide public network Internet, was born exactly for supporting US Army.

    Coming back to your question, mentioned technologies are focusing on public utilization and a key factor is set-up time; in a few hours, a rural zone can be connected and be on-line, very easily. And people there, could start to work.



  10. Matteo Bertozzi
    August 8, 2011

    Well Nemos, you have addressed a really important point. Costs for satellite communications were quite high, also in a recent past. Based on new technologies and architecture to integrate fixed and satellite networks, costs are very similar to cellular SIM and pre-paid subscription are allowed. It is a nice feature for increasing the market more on this new segment.

    August 8, 2011

    Interesting to read about satellite being a viable alternative to cellular.  Do you have any info comparing the cost of both solutions as from my experiene satellite is prohibitively expensive?  I look forward to watching Brasil win the world cup on my 4G phone in 2014 😉

  12. Edmunds Sinevics
    August 8, 2011

    Jacob, modem of Thuraya was a example. In cellular networks to obtain a data speed of 3.2 Mbps and above is realistic, but in the satellite networks are more difficult and more expensive. Interesting is Matteo mentioned approach to integrate fixed and satellite networks.

  13. Matteo Bertozzi
    August 9, 2011

    It is true, costs were  very high, but they are decreasing as consequence of integration between terrestrial and satellite networks. Rates depending on providers or costellations used. Right now we could assume for incoming / outgoing calls between “in-net” users (which are hooking up same provider) rates are in the range US$ 0.8 – 1.5 US$ per minute.

  14. ebabbo
    August 9, 2011

    This new architecture, as you have outlined, is already deployed here in Europe. Despite several ISPs, Internet access for rural zones or area close to Alps was still a huge problem. I can report integrated services have overtaken that limitation, Internet Satellite DSL is available at high speed for both upstream and downstream channel and monthly fee is close to fixed DSL price.

  15. Hawk
    August 9, 2011

    @Matteo, I am assuming you will be attending this conference in Brazil and would love it if you could update us on the event. Which companies should we keep on our radar that you believe will benefit from an increase in broadband connection in Latin America?

  16. Matteo Bertozzi
    August 10, 2011

    It is a good point pocharle.
    Terrestrial links based on microwave signal could cover several Kms, in terms of distance, then in a such way, that tech can be implemented as right reply to your questions. Link based on light (laser link for instance), can perform longer. Those technologies are very good for point-to-point connections, then for links within the backbone or links for collecting traffic from a whole given area. Speaking about rural zones, major issue regards how to deliver a distributed access, instead of a point-to-point link solution. Satellite and fixed networks integration (access based on copper or radio as per mobile) aims to overtake that and as you have right mentioned, several providers are planning to share their infrastructure in order to assure each other the coverage, in case one of them is not playing in the region. Of course clear rules from Regulators Authority are needed, especially for provisioning process, but the direction is moving forward as per you post. It helps also in reducing operational costs.

  17. Matteo Bertozzi
    August 10, 2011

    Absolutely right TaimoorZ; funds and subsidiaries to sustain Internet adoption are in plan by several Govs in Latin America, especially for promoting education and research. Actually, costs for broadband using fixed / satellite integration as mentioned within the article, is in line with traditional DSL monthly fee provided by fixed line; it is also expected a decreasing trend quite soon.

  18. I&E
    August 11, 2011

    As example of fixed-satellite integration, in our region (which is not covered by traditional access based on DSLAM) providers are deploying broadband DSL services. Download speed is up to 6Mbps while upload is up to 384 Kbps. Feature as pre-fetching is available in order to reduce perceived delay, services run very well !

  19. Matteo Bertozzi
    August 11, 2011

    Great point Hawk. It is easy to understand techs vendors and providers will play very soon a key role then as consequence a boost on ICT is expected in terms of revenue and new jobs. For Apps developers especially in the sector of education and public utilities is expected a ramp of business as well. Green is another sector very good for the region because one the key factor will be right trade-off between technology development, infrastructure, energy consumption and CO2 emission control.  Natural environment could help this strategic path: Chile for instance is becoming one of the most important are for investment in green energy; a huge part of the country is flat and at high altitude, an ideal land for green energy production and launching of associated technologies, including sensor networks for controlling remotely how things are going on. A very great and professional study on broadband impact of economy in Latin America is available here, from Prof. Raul Katz (Columbia School).

    Of course, I am planning new updates on the topic and I will be happy to provide info from my side.

  20. t.alex
    August 14, 2011

    Ebbabo, this is interesting. I assume that the modem will be more complex and expensive to receive and transmit signals to the satellite?

  21. ebabbo
    August 15, 2011

    @t.alex: it depends on the access available and your needs; even I am not an expert, I try to resume options as per what understood by users experience.
    For individual users, portable devices are available.
    For home users / office / enterprise to interconnet a whole LAN, for instance, you have to install a dish; its setup is very simple, auto-install procedure as well.
    If a basic copper is available for phone service, it is only needed a traditional DSL modem, then the signal will go through the copper till the first fixed-satellite cross connection and then will go ahead via satellite. This case, any modulation and so on is in charge to equipment from providers, installed at fixed-satellite cross connection site.


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.