21 May 2014

Latin America’s digital divide

How the lack of Internet access creates a new form of discrimination

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Projects like One Laptop per Child are trying to close the digital divide. Photo via Flickr.

by Miguel Angel Pérez Álvarez

In Mexico there are 45 million Internet users, which in a country of 120 million represents an Internet penetration of 38%. Chile leads the region with 61% while 27% of the population of Paraguay enjoys access to the Internet. In Honduras and El Salvador, Internet penetration does not exceed 20%. If the issue of Internet access one that reflects inequality then Latin America is suffering from a “digital apartheid.” For comparison: 81% of the U.S. is connected while in the Netherlands, 93% are.


How does Internet access foster social equity? The Internet today means access to massive amounts of information and is also a vehicle for instant communication. It is a path to knowledge on which an autonomous society can base its everyday decisions, force governmental action, pay taxes or receive education. Access to these benefits will cost countries. But building infrastructure for universal Internet access will benefit the development of a nation. Benefits will be seen in trade, health care and education. But how will these sectors benefit from digital penetration?

The issue of inequality has a very important social and political component that speaks to an inherent respect of the human rights of citizens. Although Latin America boasts a high penetration of mobile phones, the use of smartphones and computers with Internet remains low. Overcoming this digital divide or “digital apartheid” in Mexico, as in other countries in the region, means facing three challenges: one of infrastructure, one financial and one cultural.

Connecting provinces

In the case of Mexico the infrastructure problem is related to the dispersion of the population. Internet access providers focus on residential areas with the greatest potential market and return on their investment. The issue is whether companies and the Mexican government have creatively explored ways to bring network access to remote or sparsely populated areas. An example might be the use of ” gateways ” and ” transponders ” with underused satellites.

Financial sustainability

Regarding the financial challenge, the problems of limited Internet access depend on the installation of infrastructure. It is clear that if the population is small, the economics at that scale do not allow sustainability. Perhaps we must examine whether such small markets represent new ways of generating resources that have not yet been explored. Could the case be made that a farmer with Internet access would have access to agricultural markets?

The civic value of the Internet

Regarding the cultural order it is necessary to undertake campaigns in all spheres of social life which allow citizens to realize the benefits of Internet access. These contribute to the social construction of well-founded knowledge so that citizens can demand access (at reasonable prices and with modern technologies) for education, health, communication, organization of social life, financial transactions and governmental action.

Says MIT’s Ethan Zuckerman:

“It’s not enough to be an informed citizen; it’s not enough to vote.
You need to figure out how to make these arguments in a digital, public sphere.
You need to figure out how to advocate…Really deep engagement is the real challenge to us as citizens:
not just to engage in persuasive words, but to engage
in the real debate in the participatory, public sphere.”

The challenge of realizing the civic value of the Internet is perhaps the most relevant in Latin America. It is not a question of access to new forms of modernity (like Amazon.com) but to recover the element that distinguishes and identifies us as social subjects: the reflexive action, ethics, looking for empathy with others, finding avenues and communities for advocacy.

There are representative cases of this social force in online community action. Poderopedia is a project that allows citizens to organize and keep their governments accountable. Although there are currently only three Latin American countries on Poderopedia, the platform hopes to expand to the rest of the region. Cases such as these document the civic power of the Internet.

Addressing these three challenges will take a long time if there is a lack of political will and lack of action from society and business. But not overcoming this digital divide could mean slower development of Latin America. In an IDB study, Marco Paz Pellatt states that a 10% increase in access to broadband could represent in Mexico, to cite one example, an increase of 3.2% of GDP. Only by reforming our telecommunications infrastructure will we discover and take advantage of the power of collective action and overcome the “digital apartheid” that Latin America is experiencing.

 

Miguel Angel Pérez Álvarez is coordinator of the distance education system in the Faculty of Philosophy and Arts at Mexico’s UNAM. He has been teaching at the UNAM’s College of Education since 1990.

 

Map and additional reporting by Aleszu Bajak.