Is access to broadband internet a fundamental human right? According to a 2011 ruling by the United Nations’ General Assembly it is.
The Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) has responded to this decision with the creation of DigiLAC, a program that tracks broadband development and its effect across 26 countries and over 15,000 cities and towns in Latin America and the Caribbean. One of the key findings of the initiative’s Broadband Development Index is that these countries are far behind developed countries in broadband penetration. A concern that comes out of these results is — according to Antonio García-Zaballos, who is heading the initiative — that broadband connectivity is directly related to economic growth and the reduction of inequality.
In a 2012 report “Socioeconomic Impact of Broadband in Latin American and Caribbean Countries,” García-Zaballos stated that “a 10 percent increase in penetration of broadband services carries with it (an) average rise of 3.2 percent in Gross Domestic Product and 2.6 percentage points in productivity.”
In an interview with Nearshore Americas, García-Zaballos elaborated on some of the finer points of the report and the DigiLAC program:
NSAM: How were the countries studied in the report chosen?
AGZ: The selected countries are all the countries that belong to the IDB (26 countries) plus 37 countries coming from other regions around the world.
NSAM: How and when was the data for the Index compiled?
AGZ: The index compiles 37 variables grouped in four categories: regulation, public policy, infrastructure and applications and services. The sources of information are the World Economic Forum, the International Telecommunications Union, the World Bank and the Interamerican Development Bank. All the data is referred to 2012 and new information from 2013 will be updated shortly.
NSAM: What is the significance of such a report? How can the results be used and applied?
AGZ: The report goes beyond the ranking. It establishes the major areas of intervention for governments in such a way that the objectives of universalization and affordability are accomplished. The broadband index along with the broadband maps should be interpreted as a tool to design and supervise the national broadband plans to improve the quality of life of the final users.
NSAM: But, how can the results actually be applied?
AGZ: The results from the report could be used by governments in the definition of their digital agendas and national broadband plans, by means of having information on which particular areas (infrastructure, regulation, public policies or capacity building) should be strengthened to reduce the digital and the social divide.
NSAM: What are the biggest challenges to expanding broadband services?
AGZ: The biggest challenges are related to infrastructure that reduce the gap between urban versus rural areas, regulation, mainly in issues such as analogue switch off, infrastructure sharing and use of universal service funds, and the definition of a governance model that guarantees that the different ministries are accountable in the objective of digitalization.
Through the figure of a Chief Information Officer who is coordinating all the efforts of digitalization among the different Ministries such as education, health, finance, etc., broadband should be seen as the glue for the government strategies to become sustainable. For instance, if the government of a country launches a program like the one laptop per child program and they don’t have connectivity, most likely the program will fail.
In addition, it is also key to create awareness about the importance of broadband as a catalyzer to improve the quality of life of the final users such as citizens, SMEs and public administrations.
NSAM: How is this accomplished?
AGZ: Broadband could reduce the cost of education services up to 90%, and the cost of health services up to 25%, moreover, when it is about SME, broadband could increase the sales turnover up to 6.5%. To create awareness we need to develop training programs for teachers, doctors, entrepreneurs, and of course citizens. There are thousands of applications but the questions is whether the demand is really able to take the most from them, and in some areas like rural, whether the users are really aware on the benefits they can get by using broadband services.
NSAM: How does the IDB work with local actors in order to encourage and improve broadband capabilities?
AGZ: IDB is supporting the region throughout the broadband special program that is mainly focused on supporting the governments on the following aspects: public policies, strategic regulation and capacity building.
NSAM: What exactly is DigiLAC?
AGZ: Digilac is a meeting point for the different stakeholders in academia, the public sector, the private sector and civil society of the telecom sector in the Latin American region. DigiLAC includes information on the status quo of each country in the region and compares the performance with other regions. In addition, DigiLAC provides information on the available infrastructure, either from the telecom sector or from other utilities such as electricity, roads, railroads, etc. as a way to provide broadband services and identify the best way to provide those services.