Colombia: 4G launch boosts technology drive
The development of Colombia’s mobile network reached a milestone in mid-June with the launch of the country’s first 4G long-term evolution (LTE) service. The initiative marks one of the first 4G launches in Latin America and forms part of a broader bid by the Colombian government to close the digital divide and increase internet penetration.
The new network is operated by state-owned telecommunications company UNE EPM Telecomunicaciones, which also developed the technology, following major government investment in high-tech infrastructure. UNE EPM invested US$130m in the development of the network, including the US$40m purchase of a 10-year licence for 50 megahertz in Colombia’s 2.5 GHz band.
The term 4G is an abbreviation of “fourth generation” wireless technology, with each “generation” producing a faster internet speed. The launch of the new 4G LTE network in Colombia will allow customers with 4G-compatible smartphones to surf the internet and download information at speeds similar to those accessed through a home connection.
Post-paid customers are able to access 6-12 GB of download capacity at a monthly starting cost of COP89,000 (US$50), while prices for pre-paid users begin from around COP28,000 (US$16) per month, depending on the selected download capacity, which ranges from 1.2 GB to 8 GB.
In the first phase of the project, which was completed ahead of schedule, UNE EPM rolled out the network in Bogotá and Medellín, reaching 80% of the Colombian population. The second phase will see the service extended to include the cities of Cali, Barranquilla, Cartagena and Bucaramanga, officially increasing availability to 90% of the country’s population.
UNE EPM teamed up with the Chinese telecommunications company Huawai Technologies to install infrastructure for the first part of the project and will partner with Swedish telecom giant Ericsson for the second phase.
In a recent statement, the president of Ericsson in Latin America and the Caribbean, Sergio Quiroga, indicated that the company’s work in Colombia would “contribute to the ambitious targets defined by the Colombian government to close the digital divide and increase internet penetration”.
His comments refer to Colombia’s aggressive national technology plan, known as Vive Digital or Live Digital, which was launched by the Ministry of Information Technology and Communication (MINTIC) in 2010.
The main catalyst for the plan was a study published by the World Bank which found that internet penetration had a real and significant impact on GDP growth, especially in low- and middle-income countries like Colombia.
The government aims to bring the number of Colombia’s internet connections up to 8.8m within the next two years through the Vive Digital plan. Aware that smartphones account for only 10% of total mobile phone sales, with an even smaller number likely to be 4G compatible, the leadership has also been keen to send out a message that the funds channelled into the new network mark an investment in the country’s overall economic development.
The government is now stepping up its plans to invest in the development of 4G by auctioning off four new concession agreements to operate the networks in the country, with the bidding process, which is being managed by MINTIC, scheduled for early September.
The licences will provide a combined total of 225 MHz for 10 years, with three available in the 1900 MHz bandwidth and a fourth to be auctioned off in the 2.5 GHz bandwidth where UNE EPM currently operates. Comcel, Movistar, Avantel, DirecTV, Nextel, and Brazilian telecom Oi have all expressed interest in participating in the auction. Speculation is also mounting that the Indian telecommunications giant Bharti Airtel Group is considering investing in the development of Colombia’s 4G LTE network.
UNE EPM hopes to attract between 120,000 and 180,000 users for its new network during the coming months. However, with new players entering the market likely to increase competition and strong economic growth driving up spending power, the number of 4G users in Colombia also looks set for rapid expansion in the longer term.