Nº 6 2015 > Celebrating ITU’s 150 Years
Bridging the digital divide
Innovating with Mirian:
How do we close the digital divide?
Although 3 billion people worldwide were online and using the Internet by the end of 2014, at least 4.3 billion people were still not online, 90 per cent of whom live in the developing world. Mirian Teresita Palacios Ferreira, Chairperson of CONATEL, explains how she is working to address the digital divide in Paraguay.
Society is becoming more and more connected every day. Today, a housewife from a rural area in Paraguay can pay her household utility bills without leaving the house. Her daughter can connect to a virtual learning platform and continue her studies after arriving home from work in the capital. Later, the whole family can have a video conference, despite geographic distances.
In 2013, Internet penetration was only 36.9 per cent in Paraguay, meaning that the scenario above was not yet an option for most of the population.
Paraguay is now one of the fastest growing economies in South America, poverty has declined over the past decade, and there is universal access to free basic education.
But how do we build on this potential to turn Paraguay into a thriving digital economy?
This task was recently entrusted to me; as Chairperson of Comisión Nacional de Telecomunicaciones (CONATEL) it is my job to capitalize on the vital role that ICTs play in national development and to bring ICT access to everyone in Paraguay.
Impact of a connected Paraguay
On an individual level, increased access to broadband connectivity will enable greater access to public services. Access to health care and education will be boosted through m‑Health initiatives and online education platforms. Political participation and government transparency will benefit from e‑government solutions.
Greater connectivity will also lead to more dynamic trade and private business activities which will drive national economic growth.
Identifying the challenge
Paraguay’s geography remains a significant barrier to high-speed, low-cost Internet. As a landlocked country, we are dependent on neighbouring countries for access to the fibre-optic submarine cables that connect most of the world to the Internet.
This, in turn, drives up costs. A connection of 0.75 Mbit/s costs USD 21, which is 6 per cent of the average monthly income for a Paraguayan citizen. Subsequently, only 10 per cent of households have a fixed Internet service. Mobile broadband is an affordable alternative to fixed broadband plans, costing USD 11 — or 3.5 per cent an average monthly salary — for 500 MB.
Subsequently, Paraguay performed below average for both the Americas region and developing countries globally in ITU’s 2013 ICT Development Index (IDI), which measures national ICT access, use and skills. Paraguay had an IDI value of 3.71 compared to developing country average of 3.84 and the regional average of 4.86.
However, Paraguayans have an appetite to get online. The case is clear for us to strive to develop the infrastructure necessary to satisfy this desire of our population and enable national ICT growth.
Over the years, CONATEL has launched a number of initiatives to bring connectivity to Paraguay, focusing on a multi-stakeholder approach.
In 2007, CONTAEL liberalized the terrestrial international Internet connection, which resulted in a 715 per cent increase in average peak Internet speeds from 2007 to 2011.
Other such initiatives are working to find alternative solutions to work around our geography as a landlocked country, identifying routes to connect to the international optical fibre networks running under our world’s oceans. We are currently exploring links to the Atlantic via Argentina and Brazil and the Pacific via Bolivia and Peru, which will drive down the cost of broadband plans.
Moreover, the 2011–2015 National Plan for Telecommunications (PNT), which maps the development of broadband in Paraguay, focuses on the deployment of fibre optic backbone networks. Thanks to the subsidizing of private initiatives through the Universal Service Fund, we estimate that all 250 municipalities will have fibre optic lines by the end of 2015 which will vastly increase broadband access. Moreover, to build on the penetration of mobile broadband, CONATEL will soon begin the bidding process for 4G mobile broadband.
Funding from the Universal Service Fund has also helped to set up free WiFi in 50 public spaces across 36 municipalities at the end of 2014.
The next generation
Young people are key to closing the digital divide in Paraguay. They are avid consumers of ICTs; ITU’s 2013 Measuring the Information Society Report noted a youth Internet penetration rate of 53.9 per cent in Paraguay. Furthermore, 19.5 per cent of the total youth in Paraguay are digital natives, meaning that they have five or more years of experience online. We must now build on this and empower the next generation to become a driving force for ICT growth in the country.
This article is an abridgement.
For full text see: http://itu150.org/story/august/