Less than 50% of Latin America has fixed broadband. Here are 3 ways to boost digital access in the region


• Latin America and the Caribbean have uneven and expensive digital access.

• Promoting digitization would increase social, financial, educational and health inclusion during the COVID recovery period.

• Improving this infrastructure is relatively inexpensive.

The COVID-19 crisis has hit the Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) region harder than any other region in the world and has highlighted the need for a resilient and inclusive recovery. Greater digital access – in support of distance education, digital cash transfers, telemedicine and online public services – is the cornerstone of this momentum and requires both an ambitious policy and regulatory agenda. , as well as increased investment in infrastructure. This is especially important as the region prepares for 5G auctions and continues its 4G expansion.

The arguments for digital access are clear. Digitization boosts social and financial inclusion as well as learning and health outcomes. Nearly half of the adult population of ALC is currently unbanked. About 170 million students in the region have been affected by school closures during the pandemic. And 71% of countries have experienced disruptions in the delivery of care for noncommunicable diseases in the early months of the COVID crisis.

But the challenges are significant: Poor and uneven coverage, coupled with high data and device costs, continue to hamper digital access. Today, less than 50% of LAC’s population have fixed broadband connectivity, and only 9.9% have high quality fiber optic connectivity at home. While 87% of the population lives within range of a 4G signal, actual usage and penetration remains low (37%). And only four in ten rural Latin Americans have connectivity options, compared to 71% of the population in urban areas.

Broadband penetration lags in the LAC region

Broadband penetration lags in the LAC region

Image: World Bank

Data plans and Internet-connected devices are not affordable for the poor in the region. On average, a meager 1 GB data plan costs 2.7% of a household’s monthly income in ALC (or 8-10% for the bottom quintile in some countries), well above the affordability threshold of 2% from the International Telecommunication Union. What’s more, the cheapest basic smartphone available costs between 4-12% of average household income in much of the region, and up to 31-34% for people in Guatemala and Nicaragua, or even 84%. for people in Haiti.

With these financial burdens falling disproportionately on vulnerable populations, unequal digital access could give rise to new forms of inequality in what is already the most unequal region in the world.

Bridging the digital divide

Tackling the digital divide is imperative and will require policy actions to reduce costs, expand access and encourage greater private sector and citizen participation, especially in three areas:

1. Government regulations

LAC governments should pursue inclusion through service delivery and legal and regulatory reforms. This may include the deployment of fundamental digital identification systems for all citizens to enable secure and reliable access to public and private platforms; promote infrastructure sharing between network operators and access to “dark fiber” owned by governments, utilities and others; increase competition in a highly concentrated market of mobile operators to stimulate innovation and investment by promoting open access, technological neutrality and greater security options; attach network development obligations for underserved areas to 4G and 5G spectrum licenses; and streamline administrative and approval processes. On average, LAC countries with clear and predictable regulations attract nearly 50% more investment in information and communication technologies (and 64% more when paired with good institutions).

2. Tax incentives

Policy makers should consider direct or indirect financial incentives for customers and digital operators, where appropriate. On the demand side, subsidizing internet costs for the poorest and lowering taxes and duties on low-cost internet-enabled devices can help lower prices that exclude the poor. On the supply side, governments can use minimum subsidy concessions or temporary investment tax incentives to induce network operators to expand service in underserved areas. Similar initiatives could also encourage private companies and investors to develop other digital infrastructure, such as local data centers. LAC currently houses only about 4% of the world’s data centers, and the region’s total capacity is estimated to be less than that of northern Virginia.

3. Digital skills

Digital expansion doesn’t have to work in a connectivity silo. Complementary measures, such as digital skills training, need to be accelerated. Only 5-15% of adults in most LAC countries have moderate to strong computer and problem-solving skills in tech-rich environments (compared to 29.7% in OECD countries). Digital capacity building is beneficial for students and workers, as well as for policy makers and regulators seeking technical expertise in digital infrastructures and related fields (data privacy, cybersecurity, digital tax, etc. .).

Digital transformation holds great promise for LAC, but its price is relatively modest. Over the next decade, it is estimated that universalizing broadband access in the region will cost 0.12% of the region’s annual GDP; deployment of 5G in first and second-tier metropolises, 0.17%; and achieve OECD connectivity levels, 0.62%. In a region that under-invests in public infrastructure, the digital infrastructure gap is less costly to close than deficits in the transport, energy and other infrastructure sectors.

In 2018, internet connectivity finally reached more than half of the world’s population. Yet some 3.4 billion people – roughly 50% of the world’s population – are still not online.

While much progress has been made in bridging this digital divide, the challenge remains immense, complex and multidimensional. This requires a collaborative, multi-stakeholder approach to overcome four key barriers to Internet inclusion: infrastructure; affordability; skills, awareness and cultural acceptance; and relevant content.

The World Economic Forum launched Internet for All in 2016 to provide a platform where leaders from government, the private sector, international organizations, nonprofits, academia and civil society could come together and develop models of public-private collaboration for the inclusion of the Internet in the world. .

Since its launch, Internet for All has achieved significant results on the ground globally, including the launch of four operational country programs in Rwanda, South Africa, Argentina and Jordan.

Learn more about our results and our continued efforts to ensure Internet access for all in our impact story.

Contact us to become a Forum partner and shape the future of our digital economy.

Nonetheless, unlocking these perks will require a concerted effort. Multilateral institutions can help. The World Bank, for example, helps provide some 1,300 public institutions with broadband connectivity in Haiti and helps the Colombian government improve policies and regulations to expand broadband access. While most of the LAC countries will continue to focus on the pandemic response for the foreseeable future, now is the time to seize the digital opportunities that will enable the region to unlock a greener, more resilient and better future. inclusive.

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