|Issue:||Latin America 2007|
|Topic:||The digital divide in Latin America|
|Author:||Dr Jayhun Mollazade|
|Organisation:||QTEL Global Networks Ltd|
Dr Jayhun Mollazade is CEO of QTEL Global Networks Ltd, a leading provider of national wireless broadband networks to emerging markets, and was the President of QTEL Inc for International business development. Dr Mollazade is also the Managing Director of Star Capital, a strategy and business development group. Dr Mollazade has served as the Chief of Mission of Azerbaijan Republic to the United States of America. Dr Mollazade published a quarterly magazine called ëCaspian Crossroadsí in Washington DC and was a Senior Associate at Cambridge Energy Research Associates. Dr Mollazade, who is fluent in English, Azeri, Arabic, Russian and Turkish, has spent many years in the Caucasus, Latin America, Middle East, Turkey and Central Asia as student, interpreter, scholar and entrepreneur. Dr Jayhun Mollazade earned his PhD from the Academy of Sciences of Azerbaijanís Institute of Philosophy and Law.
In the Americas – in the world – a countryís economic development is correlated to the penetration of information and communications technologies. Studies show that providing access to communications and the Internet greatly facilitates socio-economic development. The United States Agency for International Development, USAID, local government universalisation programmes, local businesses, the United Nations Development Programme, UNDP and World Bank funding are all engaged in trying to address the gap through programmes that provide connectivity and computers in underserved regions.
The ëhave and have notí socio-economic structure of the developing world is a symptom of many well-known systemic problems in Latin America. Entrepreneurship, small business financing, individual credit access, limited health and education access have all made it challenging for the developing world and the developed economies to close the wealth gap. Unfortunately the differences in wealth and access to the means to create wealth is exacerbated by whether or not you have access to the Internet – by the digital divide. In the developing world, broadband or high speed Internet access is accessible to larger companies; individual access when available is often unaffordable for the vast majority. This worsens the divide instead of closing the gap. Efforts are underway to address this issue both commercially and through programmes promoted by world organizations and local governments. The developing regions of the world have in many ways ëflattenedí the landscape by enabling regions to get access to new services, cheap software, information, market data and a better understanding of the world economy. Universal access is one of the keys to development of these countries providing communities with the tools to build a bridge out of the low-income areas. Broadband wireless infrastructure from urban centres to secondary and tertiary cities is the least expensive, non-disruptive way to close the gap without unduly burdening local government or business community budgets. Internet broadband penetration is the best indicator of information access to the community. As noted in table 1, at the end of 2004 Mexico, Brazil and Argentina had penetration rated below two per cent – far less than the most developed nations. Chile, considered the most stable government and economy in South America, has penetration rates triple those of its counterparts. The problem is obvious but the solution is not. Reaching out into the rural communities, urban centres, secondary and tertiary cities to provide broadband communications is not the only solution to cure a countryís ills but it would be a considerable step forward. Imagine giving the vast majority of the population access to information, education, health services, farming and small business development data never before available. If you are fighting diseases like Aids and Dengue, or educating a population on new farming techniques, wireless broadband can deliver the access needed to help do it inexpensively. The United States Agency for International Development, USAID, local government programmes, local businesses, the United Nations Development Programme, UNDP, and World Bank funding are all engaged in trying to address the gap. Macedonia is a great example of what international organizations and the business community working with local government can do. In Macedonia, USAID invested US$3.9 million and the Chinese government donated 6,000 computers to build a countrywide wireless network to connect the entire nation. USAID funded and founded the Macedonia Connects Project, which hired a local company to provide wireless access for all of Macedoniaís schools. ìProsperity takes precedent over interethnic rivalries,î said Teresa Albor, a spokeswoman for the United States Agency for International Development. USAID had previously funded local-area networks for Macedonian schools, which were already equipped with 6,000 computers donated by the Chinese government. With that foundation in place, USAID funded and founded the Macedonia Connects Project, which hired a local company to provide wireless access for all of Macedoniaís schools. The project, completed in September 2005, established a wireless access backbone for the whole country. The network established WiFi ëcloudsí around towns and villages throughout the country giving access to everyone with a laptop. Today, about 95 per cent of Macedonians, even those living in remote shepherding mountain villages where people donít have phones, have wireless access available. Because of a lack of computers, funds (the average annual income is US$2,350), or lack of interest, though, only eight per cent of Macedonians have Internet access. This is not a perfect scenario but considering the one to six per cent penetration rates in most developing nations, this is a tremendous starting initiative. When more laptops are available, and the public educated about the use of the Internet, you will see a dramatic increase in penetration especially among the younger generation, the future of the country. In the rural areas of Latin America the efforts via local government support have been through the use of universal access funds available in most Latin American countries except those that have not yet deregulated. Universal access funds were created to provide the entire population with access to affordable telecommunications no matter where they lived within the country. These funds were initiated in the early 1990s with varied success and, in some cases, failures because the funds were not disbursed. For example, Chile has distributed 100 per cent of the US$29.8 million in universal access funds collected since 1995. Bolivia collected US$43.4 million since 1996, but has distributed nothing. There have been significant achievements in this area, though, that show us some ways to bridge the digital divide. For example, in Colombia 85 per cent of the 22,000 population centres with more than 150 people now have at least one rural community telephone. Since 1999, the COMPARTEL programme has subsidised the installation of Internet community access for an estimated 5.2 million people, of which 2.5 million are schoolchildren. By sheer numbers, Colombia is one of the most impressive local government efforts to date in Latin America. Close to 30,000 privately owned and operated cabinas p?blicas or Public Internet Booths, PIBS, were installed in Peru since 1993. The Budde Report, released November 24, 2006, stated this about Peru: ìWhile Peruís teledensity is far below the Latin American average, Internet user penetration is slightly above average for the region. Public Internet booths, called ëcabinas p?blicasí, can be found on street corners in virtually every city and even small towns, providing Internet access and VoIP telephony to more than 80 per cent of the population. Broadband is a virtual monopoly of the incumbent, TelefÛnica Del Per?, although a new window of opportunity has opened for other operators to provide alternative broadband access using WiMAX technology.î Local government, international funding support and local businesses together can close the access gap and stop the widening of the digital divide. Good management, reduced bureaucracy and economic support for new enterprises that deliver inexpensive wireless solutions are needed to stimulate sustainable development in the worldís developing regions. We hope to be part of that solution.