April 24, 2014

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The State of Connectivity in Latin America: from Mobile Phones to Tablets

Ten years ago, issues like e-health, e-education and e-government were more products of wishful thinking than ideas with a real possibility of being implemented in most Latin American countries. Conversely, the present moment has become a turning point for the region in terms of connectivity. Government policies, markets and non-profit initiatives are contributing to improve the overall connectivity in the region.

By 2012 98% of the population in the region had access to a mobile cell signal and 84% of households subscribe to some type of mobile service, according to a World Bank report. This rather quick expansion of ICTs in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) caught many intellectual property and access to knowledge scholars and practitioners unprepared. While they were still considering hypothetical models for deploying and using information and communication technologies (ICTs), a significant portion of the region’s population was already putting in practice innovative uses to newly available technology, and going beyond expectations in terms of self-organization and empowerment.

Examples include the emergence and expansion of cultural scenes in various LAC countries, tilting the symbolic balance from a centralized “one to many” to a decentralized “many to many” form of cultural production. Web services like Youtube or 4shared, created the conditions to disseminate cultural artifacts head to head with the mainstream forms of culture. Previously invisible voices from the region’s peripheries were thus empowered by tools like social networks and torrents, by-passing the traditional media channels.

Moreover, the economic constraints surrounding connectivity also led to innovative strategies, such as the emergence of lan-houses, cybercafés that emerged in poor areas of the region (and prominently in Brazil) where a single internet connection could be shared in exchange for a small amount of money by a group of people connected by means of a set of computers arranged in a “local area network”. Other arrangements include the emergence of a secondary market for cell phone “minutes”, a direct result of the fact that more than 80% of cell phones in the region are “pre-paid”.

Also important, the enormous potential of this low income market resonated even in hardware design and manufacturing. Asian companies realized the huge demand on the part of the poor for cell phones and started to design and sell inexpensive products, designed for low income populations. These include, for example, cell phones that cost US$20 and are capable of using 4 simultaneous sim-cards, allowing the user to switch between different carriers in order to enjoy the lowest fares and seasonal promotions, and cell phones capable of receiving radio and tv signals over the air, something highly valued by large parts of the population living in underprivileged areas.

Of course all these rapid changes and the new social practices they introduce clash with traditional forms of intellectual property and other established norms. The dissemination of culture through social networks or by means of torrents, in many cases, violates copyright laws. The use of “remix” as a form of expression, in which cultural artifacts are endlessly appropriated and transformed in order to embed new ideas, has become a central form of expression by the connected low income populations. Also, the cheap cell phones used in the shantytowns of many LAC cities are manufactured in violation of a number of established patents or do not comply with the certification standards of national telecommunications regulatory agencies. One of the challenges ahead is precisely to better understand the disconnection between the legal and regulatory system, and the connectivity practices of the majority of the region’s population.

While cell phones have so far been the centerpiece of recent debate about the digital divide, a new challenge is emerging for researchers, policy makers and practitioners: to anticipate the impact of the increasing number of tablets. A powerful signal of their relevance comes from Brazil. In late 2011, the country had 200,000 tablets but by late 2012, that number had exploded to 5 million, with more than 50% of them being low-cost tablets of unknown brands (mostly manufactured in China), purchased by low-income populations that do not have the resources (or do not want) to acquire top-tier brands like Apple or Samsung.

In the same way that many people in the region purchased a cell phone without ever having had a fixed phone line, we are now witnessing a moment in which a large number of people are buying a tablet, without ever having had a computer.

This “straight to tablet” movement will raise a number of questions and challenges. What will be the content that is going to be accessed through them? Certainly it will not be books downloaded from Amazon, or movies purchased through iTunes – both are too expensive for low income families in the region that cannot afford to pay US$8 dollars for a book or US$1 for one single music track.

Also, e-education might become a crucial issue. In the next 10 years, tablets will become increasingly present in classrooms. This raises questions such as what will be the copyright policies regarding such educational materials? or how will the transition to multimedia learning materials happen in the region? If classroom materials start to include films or music, collecting societies that charge royalties for the public performance of copyrighted works will certainly want collect fees from schools. If music is performed in public spaces, be they schools or ballrooms, copyright royalties are due and must be collected. The next few years will show whether the transition to multimedia learning materials in schools will represent another clash between intellectual property and social practices.

In sum, the issues that face us over the next few years will have tremendous impact for our societies and intellectual property researchers, educators, industry, policymakers and will all have to be prepared to anticipate the technological changes that are rapidly transforming the ecology of access in Latin America and the Caribbean. Ignoring them will not only hamper innovation in the region, but also keep vast parts of the LAC population living somewhere between the formal and the informal world. That creates a vast class of citizens that cannot fully benefit from the expanding access to ICTs without the stigma of illegality.

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This post is part of the “Open Development: Exploring the future of the information society in Latin America and the Caribbean”, a conference that will take place in Montevideo, Uruguay on the 2nd & 3rd of April 2013, in preparation to the Fourth Ministerial Conference on the Information Society for Latin America and the Caribbean. More info at: http://www.info25.org/en

Comments

  1. Diego Vicentin says:

    Dear Ronaldo, taking the increasing number of tablets and smartphones and also the growth of mobile broadband networks as a mean of acces to the internet in Brazil, I’m wondering if the current proposal of “marco civil” will assure net neutrality to mobile users.

  2. ronaldo lemos says:

    Hi Diego, I will write about that here in a few weeks. Stay tuned.

  3. Al says:

    I back packed through a large part of Peru and some of the major Brazilian cities 5 years ago (Dec 2007 – Jan 2008). I had a Macbook with me; and what I found surprising was the number of open WiFi APs with good access to the Internet – especially in Peru. In both municipal and business buildings there was some sort of open WiFi with good Internet speeds. And these are in some of the remotest towns in Peru; both in the mountains and in the jungle. A large part of my blog posts were done through these hotspots.

    Granted, I don’t think it was available by design – but it did seem to point to the possibility of e-government and widespread usage. Most people didn’t have the means to access these services – but with the lower cost of smartphones etc. this would have changed. I wonder if these locations still have open APs.