|Latin America III 2000
|The Internet in our Lives – Are We Ready?
|Head of Information and Communications Division
The digital world sometimes scares us, although we have been part of it for some time, perhaps because of its incredible, delirious, unforeseen, growth. Neither Aldous Hyxley nor Alvim Toffler, two authors famed for their views of the future, could foresee in their writings the development of the virtual global community. On the other hand, if this uncontrolled growth scares, it also fascinates us, because it impels people and companies, to innovate and update constantly.
“…there are more than 300 million adults connected to the Web throughout the world.” In Brazil, telecommunications have grown substantially both in quality and quantity during the last two years. The density of telecommunications penetration has increased greatly and the infrastructure grown and improved. The Internet has not only changed the industry paradigm but has started to revolutionise peoples lives. Brazil now has more than 5 million Internet users according to available statistics; it is still not many when compared to countries like the United States, Canada and Sweden, the countries that have the highest Internet penetration rates. According to the Ipsos Groups The Face of the Web report, specialised in communications surveys for visual media, there are more than 300 million adults connected to the Web throughout the world. While in United States 69% of the adult, above 18, population has already accessed the Internet at least once, in Brazil only 30% have done so and only 7% are regular users. Even so, Brazil is now in 10th place on the frequent users list. The survey does not show it, but we also see young children, children that do not yet write, surfing the Internet hopping from one childrens site to the next – the Web is their amusement park. Similarly, many people over 55 are finding the Internet to be a source of leisure, information and services as well as a way to consume without leaving home. By the end of the year there will be more than 9 million people over 55 on the Net, an increase of 38% since last year. Today, this group accounts for 15% of all users. “many companies in Brazil with sites on the Web need to improve their logistic and the after sales support.” Some rare initiatives in Brazil surprised even the top three countries where the communication technologies are mature, mostly because Brazil is a latecomer to the Net. Recently, for example, I read about an experiment by Unibanco, a local bank, in partnership with Terra and Mastercard. The experiment had a dual purpose – to promote the use of Unibancos virtual on Internet, credit card and, also, to demonstrate the efficiency of e-Commerce in Brazil. They invited two young adults, baptised e-Guy and e-Girl, to lock themselves in empty apartments that contained only a survival kit consisting of a virtual credit card and a computer connected to the Internet. His apartment was in São Paulo and hers in Rio de Janeiro. They lived in their respective temporary addresses, for 99 days. During this time the Internet was their only channel of communication with the rest of the world. They could buy anything they needed with the e-card, possibly the first virtual card in the world – food, furniture, CDs, household appliances, products for cleaning and personal hygiene or decorative items. Virtually, they could buy virtually anything. Use of the telephone, by the way, was completely forbidden! The experience proved that it is possible, and safe, to live only using the Internet and to see that e-Commerce in Brazil still has a long way to go, that it needs to mature and develop. It was obvious that this experiment only worked because it took place in São Paulo and in Rio de Janeiro. There, big stores such as the Pão de Açúcar supermarket chain, the Lojas Americanas variety stores, Ponto Frio electrical appliances and the Saraiva bookstores have well developed e-Commerce and logistical systems in place with 24 hour delivery guaranteed. The truth is that many companies here with sites on the Web need to improve their logistic and the after sales support. This is the indispensable, sine qua non condition, to capture and keep the customer. Although e-Boy and e-Girl also had to survive without help to clean the apartments or to installation the household and laundry appliances they bought, they had to admit at the end that one could survive by the Internet alone. This complex experiment also alerted us to an important fact: the Internet has a strong impact on people because it brings different jobs, leisure, education, entertainment and interactivity alternatives to their lives. Interactivity is really a typical Brazilian characteristic. More than 8 million people accessed the site to find out about e-Boys and e-Girls experience. They gave their opinions and sent encouraging messages. In a similar experience in United States, Internet user interest was less intense, there were only 4 million accesses. “We need to know what content should be available on the Internet to make it relevant to a greater number of people.” Of course, the result surprised even the most optimistic of the experiments sponsors, since, in developing countries like Brazil although the Internets growth rate is high, the Internet is still the privilege of a lucky few living in the major cities. Specialists foresee that phenomenon of Internet democratisation is not far from happening in Brazil. It will depend on social initiatives and upon the availability of and access to an adequate communications infrastructure. Luiz Alberto Albertin, a professor at Fundação Getúlio Vargas in Brazil, a profound observer of the digital era, alerts us that a society that does not interest itself in the changes brought by Internet access, and in facilitating such access, will marginalise a great part of the population. The Internet democratisation in Brazil, according to surveys conduced by FGV, has three aspects. Economic (access to technology and a minimum of purchasing power); cultural (people must have at least, sound basic education) and the third, content (we need to know what content should be available on the Internet to make it relevant to a greater number of people). In Professor Albertins opinion, the Internet will reach most of the population only after these three questions are resolved. We know that the government is working with various private companies to bring the Web to public school system. It is true these programmes are timid. They tend to become more effective with the introduction of the high-speed Internet II data network being installed. New technology is available to adapt TV sets, mobile phones and palm tops, among others, to the Internet. New equipment and services are resulting from the widespread convergence of information and communications technologies; they are still expensive and precarious, but in two or three years will cost much less due to increasing competition in the marketplace. “The Internet has been the driving force behind the significant increase in computer sales in developing countries.” Web use and growth are being fostered by a wide variety of initiatives, here in Brazil: banks are offering special rates so that clients and employees can buy PCs. Internet access kiosks are starting to appear in public places; cyber-cafés are in fashion; and schools, clubs, bars among others are offering easy access in an open environment. The impact of the Internet on people in developing countries is strong, stronger than might be expected. The Internet has been the driving force behind the significant increase in computer sales in developing countries. The Dataquest, the Gartner Group survey unit, affirms that PC sales in Latin America totaled 1,5 million units in the second quarter of this year – an increase of 50% over the same period last year.This high rate of growth imposes an accelerating rhythm on the offer of telecommunication infrastructure. We see power utilities, railroads and public roadway operators entering the communication era, using their rights-of-way to string optical backbones and compete with traditional carriers for the digital eras traffic. “Training, teaching, meeting and conferences no longer require the physical presence of the participant…” A recent aspect of the new economy centered on the Internet, is the emergence of new businesses offering bandwidth, or channel connections – that is, carrier capacity for Internet bits. Many companies are betting on this business which deals in what has already become the most important commodity of the New Economy. Companies need this communication infrastructure, which gives them greater agility, because the interaction among their employees and with their clients is dependent less upon physical presence and more upon virtual interaction. Training, teaching, meetings and conferences no longer require the physical presence of the participants; the participants can now be located any place in the world an adequate communications system can be found. The INCOR Institute hospital in São Paulo, recently inaugurated an advanced tele-medicine system that, among its many features, gives doctors access to patient data through the Internet. Conclusion I have two questions to ask about the new economy whirlwind: Will face-to-face interaction start to disappear? And how prepared are we to face this sort of world? Remember the Internet is just the tip of the digital world iceberg. The transition has only just started.