Colombia: Promoting internet
Over the past year, many leaders throughout the developing world have publicly committed to improving technological infrastructure and providing internet access to low-income citizens. Colombia provides a rare example where the rhetoric has evolved into real action. Since President Juan Manuel Santos came into office in 2010, internet connections in the country have more than doubled – including both fixed and mobile connections – from 2.2m to 4.6m.
Behind the rapid expansion of Colombia’s digital network is the country’s innovative and aggressive national technology plan – Vive Digital Colombia. Introduced in 2010 by the Ministry of Information Technology and Communication (MINTIC), Vive Digital aims to increase Colombia’s internet connections to 8.8m by 2014.
The impetus for the plan comes from various studies conducted by international organisations demonstrating the impact of increased internet penetration on job creation and GDP growth, especially in low- and middle-income countries. A recent study by the World Bank found that every 10 percentage point increase in broadband penetration in low- and middle-income countries led to a 1.38 percentage point increase in economic growth.
Cesar Muñoz, the general manager of Vive Digital, told OBG he would like to see the programme reach and surpass its goals for 2014. He claims one of the main factors behind the success of Vive Digital thus far has been an integrated approach.
“We are addressing both supply and demand,” Muñoz said. “Supply by building the necessary infrastructure, for example, and demand by introducing citizens to new technologies and encouraging them to incorporate internet and technology usage into daily life.”
Muñoz said that strong government support of the information technology sector has also played an important role in the early successes of plan Vive Digital. In 2010, the government pledged almost $3m over the following four years to support the expansion of technological infrastructure in the country.
Additionally, the government has sought public-private partnerships to join in the efforts. In early November 2011, Azteca, a Mexican telecommunications company, was awarded a contract valued at $230m to connect 753 of Colombia’s 1122 municipalities via fibre optic network. If Azteca fulfils its agreement as expected, Vive Digital will already have surpassed its goal to expand internet via fibre optics from 200 municipalities in 2010 to 700 by 2014.
To support the spread of technological devices in Colombia, in August 2011 the government eliminated Customs duties on laptops, tablets, cell phones and PC replacement parts that are not manufactured domestically. Value-added tax was also eliminated on computers costing less than $2060.
“Colombia is now the most affordable market for technology products in all of Latin America,” Muñoz told OBG. “The prices are on par with those of the US and, in some cases, even lower when you factor in the tax break.”
In terms of challenges going forward, Muñoz cites Colombia’s topography. “We are not a flat country,” he points out. “To install fibre optic infrastructure in mountainous or jungle terrains is not an easy task.”
Another issue for Vive Digital is promoting internet and technology use among Colombia’s low-income communities. In this sector, a lack of demand for new technologies is attributed to financial constraints as well as a common belief that the internet simply does not offer any practical application to everyday life.
To address the financial aspects of this problem, beginning in January 2012 the Colombian government is working with telecommunications companies to create subsidised internet service plans that will provide a $200 subsidy for fixed internet connections and a $40 subsidy for mobile internet connections to allow low-income citizens to access the internet at an affordable price. Muñoz believes that this initiative alone could attract 1.22m to 1.5m new internet users.
MINTIC takes a slightly more creative approach to convincing Colombians of the internet’s relevance to their lives. In early 2011, as part of the Vive Digital plan, MINTIC established a fund of $36,000 to support private companies in their efforts to develop mobile applications that address local needs and interests.
Muñoz also envisions taking technology promotion one step further by launching a “Got internet?” campaign similar to US dairy farmers’ famous “Got Milk?” campaign. Vive Digital makes it clear that the Colombian government is committed to getting its people into the fast lane on the information superhighway.