The Gap Revealed by the Pandemic

Although for several years a significant number of authors and scholars have warned of the risks associated with a growing digital gap in Latin America, this phenomenon has been relegated to the information, corporate and in some cases government agendas for many reasons. Nevertheless, and as it is frequent in our region, a relevant event such as the current pandemic elevated this phenomenon to “priority” in view of the undeniable social consequences.

Why did the digital gap in Latin America become a priority?

By: Gabriel E. Levy B. – @galevy

According to Benjamin M. Compaine, author of the book The Digital Gap, the concept of ” digital gap” refers to the perceived division “between those who have access to contemporary information and communication technologies and those who do not[1] and it is not necessary to be an expert to understand that those who do not have this access end up being at a clear economic and social disadvantage with respect to others.

In practical terms, at the current historical moment, the main determining factor in measuring the digital gap is the lack of access to the Internet, either because of the absence of connectivity, its poor quality, or because of the lack of knowledge in its use.

The 2020 report of Datareportal in partnership with Statistas, Globalwebindex: GSMA, “We Are Social” and Hootsuite, showed that, globally, 4,500 million people have access to the Internet, which constitutes 59% of world population, understood in terms of digital gap, the proportion is equivalent to ” 59/41 ” [3], that is, about 3,200 million people do not have access to the Internet in the world.

The best indicators are in Europe as a whole with 90/10, although if we reduce the sample exclusively to Western Europe the figure rises to 93/7. In the case of North America, the proportion is 87/13.

About 120 million people in South America do not have access to the Internet in the region and about 302 million do. This places this region of the world above the world average with 70% access and a gap ratio of 70/30 [5]. The figure for Central America and the Caribbean is similar, with a ratio of 67/33. Although at first glance the figures for Latin America do not seem to be as discouraging as those for Africa (27/73) [6] [7], there is another decisive variable that is not taken into account in many of the reports and statistics: broadband [8], which in simple terms means connection speed [9].

The broadband can be measured either by the average data transmission speed in megabytes per second [10], or in some cases the measurement can be asymmetric, evaluating only the downstream or upstream channel of the connection [11].

In the case of Latin America, the highest speed of Internet access is reported by Uruguay and Chile[12], although according to the average of official standards set by governments, a broadband connection in Latin America is considered to be over 20mbps (Megabits per second) [13][14], while in Spain or South Korea it must exceed 100mbps[15].

Although the average official indicator in Latin America ranges from 20 to 25mbps, the reality in the region is far from the governmental parameters. The report “Status of Broadband in Latin America and the Caribbean”[16], presented in 2018, was developed by ECLAC and co-financed by German cooperation, showed that none of the Latin American countries manage to have at least 5% of their Internet connections with speeds higher than 20 megabits per second, while in industrialized countries, in Europe and North America, the percentage of connections that are close to the average broadband indicator (100mbps), is close to 50%, while the other 50% navigate on average at the maximum speeds standardized in Latin America (25mbs). In other words, broadband in Latin America is narrow band in Europe, and yet 95% of the inhabitants of our region do not achieve this speed [17]. The worst speed indicator on the entire continent is in Venezuela, whose record is comparable to Afghanistan or Algeria [18].

The Pandemic materialized the cold statistics with a human face

The unexpected arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic forced most of the inhabitants of Latin America to go into mandatory confinement [19], while the Internet became an indispensable resource for people to continue with their daily lives, whether working, studying or simply communicating, something that did not represent a major trauma for the inhabitants with sufficient income in large cities, but in the case of families below the poverty threshold, and in rural areas, it turned the “Digital Gap”, which until now only seemed to be a cold statistic, into a palpable reality, where millions of people, from one day to the next, were left without access to work, to a type of communication, to health, but above all to education.

According to the United Nations, 1.2 billion children worldwide have been kept out of school due to the pandemic [20]. In Peru, the children of the village Qhantati Ururi (Puno), have to walk 15 km daily – two to three hours approximately – supported by their parents to reach the radio zone of the highlands, in order to listen to the radio program promoted by the government: “I learn at home”. More than 80% of children living in rural areas in this country do not have access to the Internet, which is equivalent to almost 50% of the total school-age population.

In Ecuador only 37% of families have access to the internet, which means that 6 out of 10 children are not able to study, according to UNICEF. On the other hand, more than a million children and adolescents in the coastline area alone cannot connect to digital educational content and many have to travel long distances or borrow internet, a phenomenon that is becoming more and more frequent in the Andean nation [23].

In Costa Rica, according to official figures from the Ministry of Public Education (MEP), half of the students do not have permanent access to the Internet, computer, tablet or smart phone. Some receive material via WhatsApp, when they can afford to pay for a recharge on an electronic device [24].

In Argentina, according to the report “Desigualdades Sociales en Tiempos de Pandemia” (Social Inequalities in Times of Pandemic) by the Social Debt Observatory from the Pontifical Catholic University of Argentina (UCA), the deficit in access to information in childhood and adolescence, showed that 48.7% do not have a PC at home and 47.1% do not have access to Internet service [25].

The Role of Governments in Bridging the Digital Gap

Although Uruguay has a clear advantage over other countries, it is the nation that has most rapidly overcome the inequalities caused by the digital gap as part of a state policy promoted during the Mujica and Vásquez governments, it is necessary to point out that, in such a small country, both in terms of population and geography, this was a goal that could be achieved in a short time[26], something that is certainly not so easy in the remaining countries of the region[27].

When reviewing public policies on connectivity, it could be stated that most governments in the region have generally made significant efforts to reduce the gaps, a titanic mission that requires colossal investments to achieve progress in this area. Colombia is possibly the country that has made the greatest efforts and investments in the last decade,[28] achieving significant progress in a country that still has serious public order problems and a particularly hostile geography,[29] a situation that is similarly repeated in many other nations in the region, such as El Salvador and Mexico.

Key strategies to accelerate the bridging of the gap in the region

Although the reduction of the digital gap demands colossal efforts from multiple sectors -public, private and multilateral-, throughout the last decade the particularities of the region have allowed the identification of key elements, on which a learning curve has already been developed, which should not be overlooked in order to guarantee a real reduction of the Digital Gap, especially in the context of the current pandemic and other future ones that are likely to come in the next few years:

  1. Appropriation:

As stated by the director of CRC, Carlos Lugo Silva, in the virtual panel: ” Post-COVID Regulatory Challenges”, conducted by Comtelca and Andinalink a few weeks ago:

“There is no point in connecting the 40% of Colombians who still do not have the Internet, if this connection does not offer practical and useful value in their daily lives” [31].

The social appropriation of ICTs is a necessary dimension to ensure that communities really connect with the links in the digital communication chain, otherwise, as we warned months ago in the article: “Anecdotal and disjointed ICT policies“, investments will not achieve the expected impact [32]. For this reason, it is essential that investments in technology are accompanied by social, pedagogical and didactic processes of social appropriation of ICTs [33].

  1. Efficient management of universal funds:

One of the main conclusions of the Latin American Telecommunications Congress 2019 (CLT19 in Spanish), co-organized by CAF –Development Bank of Latin America-, is the need to ensure that the so-called universal funds [34] present in most countries of the region, are managed responsibly, but above all efficiently:

It was proposed to resolve bottlenecks that would allow the efficient management of funds, guaranteeing conditions so that they are reinvested in the proposed purposes and do not go into programs in the general budget. It is essential to understand in a holistic way how these funds are being used and whether they are meeting their objectives...” Conclusions of the Latin American Telecommunications Congress 2019 (CLT19) [35]

  1. Strengthening small and medium sized ISPs and WISPs

Narrowing the digital gap is not necessarily the priority of the large telecommunications companies, whose legitimate interest is profitability, which in most cases clashes with the social purposes of narrowing the digital gap [36]. The large multinational telecommunications companies present in the region avoid their presence in areas where profit margins are below their commercial expectations, and in many cases, they withdraw if profits are below expectations [37]. This is evidenced by the fact that the majority of operating licenses throughout Latin America for these companies include 100% of national territories; however, as the figures show, their coverage is mainly concentrated in urban centers [38].

Unlike the large telecommunications companies, there are thousands of small operators throughout Latin America called: ISP (Internet Server Provider) or WISP (Wireless Internet Server Provider) [39], which in very complex conditions provide access services to their communities, and maintain their presence even in areas of public order and difficult access, becoming the main local reducers of the digital gap, as we analyzed earlier in the article: “WISPs narrow the digital gap”[40].

Additionally, the small Internet providers are the ones who best know their own communities and the particularities of the geography of their regions, so they should be the main actors in the digital transformation, adding and articulating their capacities.

  1. International Cooperation

In general terms, Latin America is a region with many needs and deficiencies, which is why the assistance of international cooperation becomes an important asset for the materialization of government plans and programs, while its presence strengthens monitoring, evaluation and auditing mechanisms, for the sake of greater transparency in the search for and achievement of the proposed objectives[41].

In conclusion, the Digital Gap is one of the greatest threats to the increase in poverty and inequality throughout the region, a phenomenon that became visible with the current situation of the pandemic, leaving millions of citizens not only without access to connectivity, but also without access to education, work, health and telecommunications.

Although there are important and constant efforts in public policies tending to reduce the gaps in different countries of the region, it is necessary that these efforts focus on prioritizing four transversal aspects: Social Appropriation of ICTs, Efficient Management of Universal Funds, Strengthening of Small and Medium-Sized ISPs and Alliances with International Cooperation, a formula that will allow to reduce these unacceptable social inequalities through governmental and civil society efforts, if it succeeds in articulating these four strategic pillars in a transparent, rigorous and constant manner.

Photo: kristin-wilson- en unsplash

[1] Book: The Digital Gap Facing a Crisis or Creating a Myth?

[2] Book: What is the Digital Gap: An Introduction to the New Face of Inequality

[3] Datareportal Global Digital Report in partnership with Hootsuite and Statista

[4] Comparative number of Internet users in the world by region – Portal Statista

[5] Datareportal Global Digital Report in partnership with Hootsuite and Statista

[6] Comparative number of Internet users in the world by region – Portal Statista

[7] Datareportal Global Digital Report in partnership with Hootsuite and Statista

[8] Verizon Article: What is Broadband?

[9] Official FCC Broadband Information

[10] Encyclopedic article on the mbps reference value

[11] Note by Xfinity on the Broadband Measurement Mechanism

[12] Arenapública newspaper article about Broadband in Latin America

[13] Article on Broadband speeds by El Espectador newspaper from Colombia

[14] Article on Broadband in Argentina by La Nación

[15] Article by Xataca about broadband in Spain

[16] ECLAC Report on the Status of Broadband in Latin America and the Caribbean

[17] ECLAC Report on the Status of Broadband in Latin America and the Caribbean

[18] BCC article on broadband in Latin America

[19] France24 press release on mandatory confinement in Latin America

[20] New Herald article on the new education gap

[21] Official statistics on access to ICTs in Peru

[22] Newspaper article from the newspaper “La Vanguardia” about the educational reality in Peru

[23] Press Release by La Hora from Ecuador

[24] Article: Analogous Costa Rica stripped by Covid19 – Column of Jonatan Prendas in La República

[25] Press article on the situation in Argentina

[26] Official reference of the Presidency of the Republic of Uruguay on the digital gap

[27] Advisory document: Initiatives to close the digital gap in Latin America

[28] Advisory document: Initiatives to close the digital gap in Latin America

[29] Academic Article “The Digital Gap in Colombia”

[30] Academic article on the Digital Gap in El Salvador

[31] Comtelca – Andinalink panel: Post-COVID Regulatory Challenges – Minute 50

[32] Andinalink article: The anecdotal and disjointed ICT policies”

[33] ECLAC Report: Broadband in Latin America, Beyond Connectivity

[34] ECLAC article on the use of universal funds

[35] Latin American Telecommunications Congress 2019 (CLT19)

[36] Academic article: Digital Gap, Poverty and Social Exclusion

[37] BBC article: Telefonica divests itself of its business in Latin America

[38] ECLAC Report on the Status of Broadband in Latin America and the Caribbean

[39] ECLAC Report: Broadband in Latin America, Beyond Connectivity

[40] Andinalink article: WISPs narrow the digital gap

[41] Academic article: International Cooperation and the Bridging of the Digital Gap

Disclaimer: The published articles correspond to contextual reviews or analyses on digital transformation in the information society, duly supported by reliable and verified academic and/or journalistic sources.  The publications are NOT opinion articles and therefore the information they contain does not necessarily represent Andinalink’s position, nor that of their authors or the entities with which they are formally linked, regarding the topics, persons, entities or organizations mentioned in the text.