Panama: Aiming for universal internet access
Both the government and the private sector are working towards expanding internet usage in Panama with the ultimate goal of providing universal internet access. As the mobile telecoms market reaches saturation, information and communications technology (ICT) firms will look to capitalise on new revenue streams provided by the continual internet expansion.
While telecom firms and internet service providers (ISPs) are busy making inroads in urban centres by expanding the broadband network, the government is focusing on providing last-mile access to remote towns and villages using WiMAX technology.
Indeed, with 184.7 mobile subscriptions per 100 habitants in 2010, Panama has a much higher mobile teledensity than the global (78) and developed world (117.8) average, according to figures from the International Telecommunications Union (ITU).
Now that the overwhelming majority of the population has a mobile phone, the sector’s focus is shifting to furthering the quality and quantity of internet access points using a variety of infrastructure, including fibre-optic broadband, WiMAX, WiFi and mobile broadband.
ITU figures indicate that Panama’s internet teledensity (the percentage of individuals using the internet) was 42.75% in 2010, a significant improvement from the 6.55% registered in 2000. But according to the National Authority of Public Services (Autoridad Nacional de los Servicios Públicos, ASEP), just 8.13% of the population reported having internet at home.
In 2011 the majority (51.4%) of internet subscribers were still accessing services through ADSL, though this figure has steadily declined since 2007 when it was as high as 66.7%. It seems most internet subscribers who have abandoned ADSL technology likely opted to upgrade to a cable modem. Cable modem usage increased from 29.1% of internet subscriptions in 2007 to 42.5% in 2011, according to preliminary data from ASEP.
Though there were just 265,397 broadband subscriptions in 2011, a total of 1.48m users reported accessing the internet through broadband, nearly twice as many as in 2007, when 788,986 people reported using a broadband access point.
Panama has been developing its broadband network for more than a decade and is well ahead of most of its regional neighbours. The country has terrestrial landing points from the undersea cable networks MAYA-1, ARCOS-1, Pan American (PANAM) and Pan American Crossing (PAC).
The MAYA-1 ring boasts a capacity of 82.5 gigabytes per second (GBps) and runs 4400 km from the US to Colombia with several stops along the way in the Caribbean. The 8600-km ARCOS-1 ring similarly stretches from the US to Colombia servicing various Caribbean and Central American nations en route. ARCOS-1, which is owned by Columbus Networks, was upgraded in 2011 with scalable design capacity exceeding 1 terabit per second (TBps).
Meanwhile, the PAC submarine cable runs 10,000 km down the western coast of the US to South America, and the PANAM cable, which was upgraded in 2009 to improved regional capacities in 10 GBps wavelengths, connects the west coast of South America to the Caribbean through Panama.
WiMAX technology, which has been deployed as part of the government’s $25.5m Panama Border to Broadband project and developed by Liberty Technologies and Cisco Systems in 2008, comprised roughly 1.6% of all internet connections. The project is part of a last-mile solution to bring internet to remote areas where commercial operations are not financially viable at the moment. The project covers an area of 77,081 sq km, providing 526,000 people with internet access.
Mobile broadband is fairly widespread thanks to the large number of mobile phones on the network, though not everyone has a smartphone capable of 3G and/or WiFi access. Even so, mobile broadband networks are employed by each of the telecom operators: Cable and Wireless Panama, Movistar, Digicel and Claro. Each operator maintains at least a 3G network, though some have upgraded to the 3G HSPA+ enhanced networks.
Fittingly, Panama will host the “Connect the Americas” ICT Summit from July 17-19 in Panama City. The conference is sponsored by the ITU and will focus on closing the technology gap in the region. Panama is ahead of many of its regional peers in this regard, yet there is still much to do for one of the world’s fastest-growing economies to become a regional centre for ICT. Achieving its goal of universal internet access is certainly a strong step forward.