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Vive digital? The challenges of Internet in an unequal country

“It is not a matter of just asking ourselves if technology reduces poverty and helps to strengthen democracy, but also how inequitable societies, like Colombia, can migrate to a communications system that is able to transform all areas…”

 María Paula Martínez* / Colombia, 2015.

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In Colombia, as in all or almost all countries of the world, Internet penetration rises every year. However, this is not an achievement of the government, but an inevitable occurrence of present times. Since this service began in this country in 1994, the network has been constantly growing: after 20 years the figure now stands at 9.7 million broadband subscribers according to the latest report published by the ICT sector in 2014.

What does it mean that in Colombia there are almost 10 million broadband subscribers? Is that a lot or just a few people? In the national context the figure is positive in terms that it has been rapidly and constantly increasing in recent years as part of a government target (in 2010 there were just 2.2 million subscribers). On the other hand, it’s still a very low figure for a country of over 45 million inhabitants and almost 12 million dwellings, underlining the challenges of Internet in nations with emerging economies and high levels of inequality such as Colombia (where the GDP per capita is USD 7.831)

The origin of the dilemma may lie in the nature of the Internet, which is not a public service such as electricity, water or television, while its access is determined by the ability of citizens to pay for it. Moreover, to connect with the internet you have to be in an area that has network coverage (either broadband or mobile connections); have a device that can receive the signal, and pay a connection charge to a private operator. Thus a triple problem exists for Colombians who are living in difficult geographical areas such as the Amazon, where the broadband network has not yet arrived; or who do not have computers or tablets or smart phones; or who don’t have the money to pay for this service. Or in the worst case scenario, are affected by all three circumstances.

The figures show a startling difference between Colombians connected to the Internet and those who are not. In departments such as Antioquía, Santander or Quindío, for example, there is an internet penetration of between 12% and 14%, while in departments such as Guanía, Vichada and Guaviare penetration is less than 1%. This phenomenon is partly due to geographical circumstances that have benefited capitals and municipal centers closer to the center of the country, but also to issues of market and price.

And judging by the figures the least of the problems is having an actual device. According to official data, there is more than one mobile phone for each inhabitant, and 26% of Colombian households have a desktop computer; 23.3% a laptop; and 8.2% have a tablet (the figures tend to be low but they’re also increasing – National Statistical Department, DANE 2013). In addition, and in terms of the “Vive Digital” plan of the Santos government, thousands of tablets and computers have been distributed to schools, cultural centers and libraries in remote communities.

The problem is in gaining access to the network and being able to pay the connection cost. According to another survey by DANE on the quality of life, 44% of Colombians say they have no internet because it is very expensive, while 25% consider it unnecessary; 20% of citizens state that they have no device from which to connect, and 10% don’t know how to use such a device anyway. For technologies Minister  Diego Molano Vega, who heads the «Vive Digital» program, there are four obstacles related to this issue, and which make equality and democratization of internet in the country a difficult task. The first, that Colombians do not perceive the Internet as a valuable service; the second is the high installation cost of networks and ICT infrastructure across the country; the third is the limited budget that the government has to invest in infrastructure, and lastly, the high costs of the service.

Thus it is not a matter of just asking ourselves if technology reduces poverty and helps to strengthen democracy, but also how inequitable societies, like Colombia, can migrate to a communications system that is able to transform all areas (the way in which people access, acquire and use technology). Inventions such as television or radio did not involve a «knowledge use» aspect, or an objective or a final aim. Since their emergence they have been transmitted by public and open signals and represent a form of passive consumption. Internet, on the other hand, involves a degree of technological literacy, an active ritual and payment of a service in a country where such a cost is high (not including the price of installation of networks and antennas). According to figures from the Global Information Technology Report 2013, fixed monthly fee internet in Colombia is about USD 35 a month, a high figure compared with countries like Chile where it costs USD 25, the United States where it is USD 20 or Brazil where charges start at USD 17.

In conclusion, Colombia now faces the typical challenges of a revolution, with all its utopias and setbacks. With a rate of 9.6 subscribers per 100 inhabitants, its regional position is below that of Argentina with 14.44 subscribers, Chile with 12.9, Brazil with 10, while being above countries such as Venezuela which has 7.31. For their part, Ecuador and Peru have 6.37 and 5.18 subscribers per 100 inhabitants, respectively, according to World Bank figures.

How do Colombians themselves view this situation? Optimists include Minister Molano who stated that «Vive Digital» is moving as fast as a locomotive with the speed of a bullet train, while his general assessment, as stated in an interview with the El Espectador newspaper, is as follows; «We’re doing fine. This month I was in Toca, in Boyacá, which has an agro-based economy, and it was impressive to see how many children were going online and have the same opportunities as those studying in a private school or who live in cities like London or New York.

For President Santos, the biggest challenge is not only connecting people (to the internet) but also learning how to reap the most benefits from the infrastructure. In the conversation he held last January 2015 with the creator of Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, Santos acknowledged that we still do not know how to be leaders and how to use these «highways» to be more efficient. The «highway» is the first step, but the big challenge is to develop applications.

For Colombians in general, this is a service that needs to be massively extended in less time than the electricity or sewage systems, which in 2015 still don’t exist in various Colombian townships.