|Issue:||Latin America I 2000|
|Topic:||The Internet and the democratization of Access to Knowledge|
|Author:||Maria Christina Fontainha Carneiro|
|Title:||Head of the Telecommunications Department|
|Organisation:||Urban Infrastructure Division|
At the turn of the 3rd Millennium, the world faces profound transformations in the interrelations between the various sectors of the economy, as well as in relations between individuals, regions and nations. The convergent evolution of information and communication technologies promises to bring both developed and developing countries into the so-called “Information Age”. At this point, any debate that understates the strategic importance of this inexorable trend will tend to produce, at least in countries such as Brazil, a legion of technologically excluded individuals, in other words, the illiterates of the information age.
Only recently the importance of promoting competition in several infrastructure sectors was still being debated, even though the capacity of the Brazilian state to promote investment was considered to have been exhausted. Within the telecommunications sector, these transformations are not only evident, but have occurred much more rapidly than expected. The process began with the introduction, at the end of 1997, of a competitive model-initially for B band cellular telephony, and culminated in July 1998 with the privatization of the subsidiaries of the Telebrás group. The number of cellular lines in operation has grown from some 4.4 million in 1998 to 15.5 million in 1999, while the number of fixed lines has grown from 18.4 million in July 1998 to 27.7 million in December 1999. Recent surveys carried out by TV Globo (1) among the C, D and E income groups have shown that the main priorities for low-income groups are to acquire, in that order, a car and a computer for their children; A survey of Internet users in Brazil showed that the number of clients has grown rapidly over the last 2 years, and that 57% of these are concentrated in the South East of the country, with 74% connecting to the Internet via their telephone lines and 59% of those interviewed having a household income of between 10-50 minimum salaries; The press has recently published information on strategic associations and acquisitions in the Brazilian Internet sector. Portugal Telecom, the main stockholder of Telesp Celular, acquired 100% of Zip.Net S/A. The Spanish group, Telefonica, which is now competing on the Brazilian Web with its partner, Portugal Telecom, in a number of international businesses, had already acquired the Internet Service Provider, Zaz, in 1999. Telemar and Tele Centro Sul, which will compete with each other in fixed telephony when that market is completely deregulated in 2002, formed an association to buy 30% of iG, a free ISP launched little more than a month ago. Such facts allow us to foresee a number of issues, the outcome of which cannot be left to free market forces, thus obliging the State to assume the role of formulator of policies and strategies that aim to reduce the huge disparities that have arisen. It is undeniable that the private sector has accelerated the growth in the number of telephone lines, both fixed and cellular, through the competition driven marketing of pre-paid plans. This has permitted the inclusion of users in the low income C, D and E groups that would never otherwise have had access to these means of communication.At the same time, the private sector, would not, without the participation of the state, for example, be able to offer the necessary means for the extension of Internet within Brazil to a mass market. In addition, surveys carried out identify classes A and B as the main users to date. The plans for universal access to services thus necessarily implies the adoption of measures to overcome obstacles, as well as to avoid the concentration of control over information by a small, priveleged, sector of the society. This raises the question as to how government and private agents can act within an increasingly globalized economy to ensure the democratization of the gains resulting from the use of these new technologies. Far from exhausting the discussion of such a complex subject, we will attempt to outline some of the principal obstacles and challenges that remain to be confronted in promoting universal access to information and knowledge in a context of broadband technology, within a society whose income profile is still highly unequal. In our view, the concentration of issues focused on the Internet is justified, since it undoubtedly promises to be the “core business” of the so-called “new economy”. It is hardly a matter of chance that the recent mergers and acquisitions have focused on a search for synergies between voice, data and image services. Expanding Internet access to the masses involves removal of physical barriers and requires measures such as free access to services, tariffs differentiated from those charged on telephone lines, as well as the dissemination of access to high velocity circuits (broadband) through differentiated technologies (satellites, optical fibre and wireless). In addition to these factors, another important measure is the need to develop content for Portuguese language countries. Once such issues have been resolved, it will be necessary to rethink ways of overcoming obstacles related to the distribution of so-called “hardware” (through the socialization of use of equipment), as well as building the necessary human resources for the dissemination of access to information, and especially its decoding for low income populations. In addition, it is essential to guarantee the self-sustainability and continuity of these proposals, including them, for example, as part of the basic educational curriculum, whether taught in public schools or through initiatives by the communities themselves. Among the resources directed towards such applications, Brazils Fund for Universal Access to Telecommunica-tions Services (FUST) will be an important tool. Conclusion In this way, even after removing the principal barriers, we understand that the challenges imposed by the Information Age, most notably those related to the Internet, will present a further obstacle to the efforts of society to promote the social development of the country.