Market Concentration in Internet Access: Community Providers as an Alternative for Digital Inclusion
Brazil generally has few operators, and those that exist offer very poor service and fail to cover the entire population. As such, Internet access continues to present a challenge to the full exercise of freedom of expression.
In 2012, Artículo 19 launched the publication “Access to the Waves: Principles of Freedom of Expression and Regulation of Broadcasting” The authors discuss the possibility of state regulation of the electromagnetic spectrum in order to encourage plurality and the diversity of the media, ideas and opinions. The challenges addressed include the commercial interests and the public interest as well as the boundary between the management of the public interest and government control. Nearly 15 years later, in a context of digital convergence, it becomes necessary to reflect on how current the concepts used during that period are. What is the new definition of the media? Is regulation still necessary in a context in which it is said that there is an abundance of media content? How should the impact of the dominant platforms on plurality and diversity be addressed? There are many questions and few simple and objective answers.
In practice, we observe the continuation of the concentration of broadcasting media in Latin America and the concentration of the Internet access market. In Brazil, for example, the operator Oi, which had a large segment of the telecom market –including as an Internet provider- requested a judicial liquidation of 65.4 billion reales (around US$20.2 billion) in June 2016. The trend is for the part of the market that was held by Oi to be absorbed solely by giants Claro and Telefónica. The latter purchased GVT, one of the few large Internet providers that did not yet belong to a major conglomerate active in Brazil, that same year. GVT belonged to the French media group Vivendi, which traded GVT for a share of Telefónica Brasil and Telecom Italia. Brazil generally has few operators, and those that exist offer very poor service and fail to cover the entire population. As such, Internet access continues to present a challenge to the full exercise of freedom of expression.
According to the latest Home ICTs study (TIC Domicilios), in 2015, only 51% of Brazilian households had Internet access. In rural areas, 78% of households do not have Internet access. In 76% of households with family income at or below the minimum wage, there is no connection. Even in regions with greater Internet penetration, the access speeds offered are still limited. In the southeast, where the speed indicator performs best, the bandwidth speed ranges of 10 to 20 Mbps, is only used by 12% of people (TIC Domicilios, 2015). Regional inequality is also significant in Brazil. The service offering is still fairly unequal among Brazilian regions and it is notable that over half of the population in the northern region (53%) has no access and their access speed is the lowest in the nation. In addition, only 2% of users have speed of over 10 Mbps (Tic Domicilios, 2015).
When the Facebook connectivity initiative Free Basics (previously called Internet.org) was announced, civil society organizations again reflected on the best model for connecting the poorest members of society given that the business proposal would initially bring serious limitations of effective access to the Internet, potentially violating the principle of net neutrality and resulting in strong anti-competition effects in the long-term.
Brazil only has specific government policies designed to promote digital inclusion. For a long time, one of the main efforts with these characteristics were telecenters, which even had some government support from various spheres with the most varied possibilities and limitations. In this context, self-managed and community practices are justified and legitimate as means of addressing the digital divide beyond the search for regulations and interventions by the public order. Internet service providers play a fundamental role in the increase in access to the Internet, expanding digital inclusion and critical Internet infrastructure. Over the past few years, the discussion of the use of the electromagnetic spectrum1 for digital inclusion has taken on more strength and importance.
One alternative for digital inclusion that has been tested in some Brazilian communities is the use of the spectrum to create self-managed networks. This is a non-elitist, open, decentralized infrastructure that can be managed by the users. It is what we call a community provider model. This connection model is not based on a simple provision of Internet access, but also provides the community in which it is introduced with social interactions around technology such as those that telecenters and Internet cafés tend to provide.
This model helps local development by making an Internet signal available for diverse social purposes. It allows for the dissemination of ideas, cultural and political manifestations, social habits, access to education and training and digital inclusion in both urban centers and rural areas. In addition to Internet access, the provider allows for the creation of an internal network that can promote local services. The community will be able to create a virtual space in which it can share information and create applications that can only be accessed by community network users. This type of tool can strengthen community ties and activate local life.
The community provider can serve as the main channel for communications and dissemination of local activities. The creation of a provider presents endless opportunities depending only on the use that each community makes of the technology. The internal network can have exchange services among residents, encourage the sharing economy and promote social and political organization.
Community providers represent just one tool. The community decides how to use it. As such, it is a liberating alternative and one that is important for confronting the market concentration in Internet access that has emerged in Latin America. It should be promoted and examined by public servants, academics and activists as an important and legitimate alternative option to the connectivity model.
*Laura Tresca is Master in social communication and journalist by Universidade Metodista de São Paulo (UMESP), member of National Observatory on Digital Inclusion (ONID, was National Coordinator of Communication of Rede Casa Brasil of Digital Inclusion for Federal Government. Currently is Program Officer of freedom expression in Article 19 in Brazil.
Marcelo Blanco is assistance in the Program of Digital Rights in Article 19 in Brazil. Degree in International Relations by Pontifícia Universidade Católica de São Paulo (PUC-SP)
1 The electromagnetic spectrum is the complete interval of all possible frequencies of electromagnetic radiation. It is the air space through which data travel. This interval also contains the frequency band used for Internet access in remote locations, also known as Internet via radio.