July 30, 2012
The next digital divide for Latin America & the Caribbean concerns Internet access and the many rural areas in the region that are still without it.
In the 1980s, countries in Latin America and the Caribbean spearheaded reforms in the telecommunications sector, and many countries around the world followed suit.
They started by privatizing state-owned incumbents and then opened up the sector to new entrants which led to a competitive market, particularly for mobile operators. The gap in access to voice telephony has largely been met now, due to the rapid rollout of mobile networks. However, the next digital divide concerns Internet access and the many rural areas in the region that are still without it.
The Connect Americas Summit 2012, hosted by the International Telecommunication Union in Panama City, brought together leaders from the public and private sectors, as well as international and regional development agencies, to identify resources required to close information and communication technology (ICT) gaps in the region.
Doyle Gallegos, the World Bank's lead ICT policy specialist who attended the summit, says, "We are now at the base of the next wave of reforms which will position the region to fully benefit from all the infrastructure that has been put in place. In this next stage, we will need to focus on connecting the rural areas and on the uptake of ICT applications to boost productivity, improve access to information and to innovation platforms."
Many of the country representatives voiced concerns that the private operators were not reaching the remote and rural areas. These areas are often seen as unprofitable or are in rough terrain which makes infrastructure rollout difficult. Improving access in these areas will require examining how the private sector can be incentivized to reach them and to look at public-private partnership arrangements where necessary. Target beneficiaries will need to include key institutions such as hospitals, schools, and community centers.
As Internet service at faster speeds becomes more available, the benefits and impact should increase as well. Yet, to fully leverage this new capacity does require some help. How people use ICTs becomes a key factor. Hence there is a role for governments to play in facilitating and triggering ICT use – such as through using ICTs themselves to provide basic services, and by ensuring a secure online environment where e-commerce, e-government, and e-entrepreneurship can flourish.
The World Bank is supporting the connectivity agenda in the region through the Nicaragua Rural Telecommunications Project and the Caribbean Regional Communications Infrastructure Programme (CARCIP).