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Use of the broadband spectrum in Brazil

“In order to promote the agenda for the use of the broadband spectrum in Brazil, as well as the increased supply of 3G and 4G technologies, it is necessary to invest in the quality of these internet connections. So as to ensure that users can experience the whole network, there is a need to provide legal security to the installation of free networks. Finally, digital cities should stop being experimental and should become massive.”

 Luiz Perin Filho and Laura Tresca (*)/ Brazil, abril 2015

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Access to the Internet in Brazil, particularly broadband, still represents a challenge for the country. According to TIC Domicilios 2013, an annual publication of the Center for the Study of Information Technology and Communication (CETIC.br), approximately 43% of households have access to the Internet in Brazil. Regarding the type of connection, 22% have mobile access and 66% have a fixed broadband connection.

There is now a timetable for the termination of analog broadcast TV by 2018, and this is stimulating discussion of the use of the spectrum for digital inclusion. Access to the Internet via 3G has been available in the country since 2007, which in 2015 has reached 92.1% of the Brazilian population. For its part, 4G technology was first offered in 2012 and today corresponds to 41.8% of the population. Although the numbers for signal availability are apparently optimistic, Brazil is still far from meeting international standards in this area. The International Telecommunication Union (ITU) has recommended that developing countries should offer up to 1,300 MHz for broadband use by 2015. According to 4G Americas, Brazil provides just 530 MHz of spectrum, equivalent to less than 40% of the target.

In September 2014, the Brazilian government auctioned the 700MHz band, with three of the four telecom operators in the country obtaining national segments of this part of the spectrum. The band is used today for transmission of the analogue television signal, and the auction itself was part of the digital transition. The fact that this band is now being used for the analog signal makes the process of spectrum allocation for its new role much more expensive, apart from representing possible problems of signal interference for those currently using the band: television service concession holders. The investments needed for cleaning the band are high, and there is a risk that these costs will be passed on to consumers over the coming years.

Historically, the quality of the supply of broadband services via 3G and more recently by 4G has been beset by problems in Brazil. With 3G, not only was there a delay in the full supply of this technology, there were also problems due to lack of investment in infrastructure and lack of proper planning, such as the problems of misallocation and size of the transmission towers, which support a low number of connected devices and are located at the limit of their capacity. This fact may explain why only 22% of households opt for this type of connection.

In spite of all the problems, the government indicated in a speech made by the Minister of Communications Ricardo Berzoini in the Brazilian Parliament that it is seeking to make progress in issues related to development of and access to the Internet. According to the plan presented by the minister, 3G should be available in almost 5,000 cities of a total of 5,570 municipalities in the country by 2015, while 4G should become available in 1,142 locations.

Although it is quite important for users, it may be questioned whether the number of connections through mobile devices is actually effective for digital inclusion and to guarantee access to the Internet. A first limitation that can be observed is that 3G or 4G technologies are used in mobile devices, which do not guarantee the ability to browse and employ various applications due to their size and technical differences. Often these services are provided through plans that have limited data use; this may mean that the service will be cut or the connection speed reduced when the data package leased has been used up. Another situation identified is when operators offer promotional access only to certain services or applications, which effectively influences the use made of the Internet by their customers.

An alternative for digital inclusion that has been experimented with in some Brazilian communities, although not at a massive level, is the use of the spectrum for the creation of free networks. This is a popular, open-access communications infrastructure that is also decentralized and managed by its users.

Since 2008, all citizens have been allowed to share an Internet signal within a radius of up to 2km, depending on the frequency used (a Wi-Fi spectrum of 2.4 GHz or 5.8 GHz) and as long as the activity is not for profit. However, at present the regulations issued by the National Telecommunications Agency (Anatel) do not guarantee legal security for the creation of free networks, while the General Telecommunications Law (LGT) is ambiguous about the issue of restrictions for sharing a signal within the same building. Due to the lack of definitions provided by Anatel, these networks represent a weak flank in terms of lawsuits presented by Internet providers, due to the general misinformation in society and legal uncertainty.

However, the Ministry of Communications began implementing the Digital Cities program, which has been important in terms of guaranteeing the dissemination of information and the supply of public and private services in Brazilian cities. The program was created in 2011 and includes the installation of public access points for free use by the population in areas of high density, such as public squares. In addition, it has also been proposed that networks in public buildings should be fully exploited and shared, and that telecenters for the population should also be established. In the program, smaller cities have been prioritized, given that it is in these places that the technological development of services and management is often lagging more behind.

Nevertheless, the aforementioned problems show how the Brazilian government is still far from achieving its proposed objectives in terms of public policy, as well as with regard to reaching the objectives of the Internet Civil Framework. In force since 2014, this law recognizes access to the Internet as «essential to the exercise of citizenship.» This legal framework does not regulate the use of the spectrum in Brazil for the supply of broadband; however, some elements that make up this issue are now part of the discussion agenda for the regulatory process, such as: data plans, «free access» and the essential nature of Internet service.

In conclusion, in order to proceed with the agenda for the use of the spectrum for broadband in Brazil, and besides the increased supply of 3G and 4G technologies, it is necessary to invest in the quality of these connections. So as to ensure that users can access the entire network, it is necessary to provide legal security with regard to the installation of free networks. Finally, digital cities should stop being just of an experimental character and become more massively implemented. Only in this way can Brazil make better use of the spectrum in order to promote digital inclusion.

(*) Digital Rights Program for ARTIGO 19 in Brazil

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