How digital connectivity is transforming Latin America

A taxi driver checks an app on his smartphone in Rio de Janeiro April 15, 2013. Picture taken on April 15, 2013.

Image: REUTERS/Ricardo Moraes

Bas Burger
Chief Executive Officer, Global Services, BT Group
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We know the world is changing, and fast. But we shouldn’t be surprised. After all, the technology that’s allowing us to bring this new digital world to life is of our own doing.

Through advances in technology, we are able to connect people, places and things in previously unimaginable ways. Digital in this era is the coming together of humans and technology in an entirely new manner. The digital world we have made possible can drive fundamental change in people, organizations and society if we bring our collective resources together to enable it.

Unfortunately, we have not yet brought all the fruits of our technological labour to bear. This type of connectivity remains inaccessible in many parts of the world – which means our work as a members of this global community of technologists and innovators is not done.

Consider the landscape in Latin America. A recent GSMA study found roughly 90% percent of the region is covered by mobile broadband. A closer examination of the figure, however reveals that only about 50% of those people are “connected” and online. Meaning that half of the population, while being in a region with coverage, could not actually connect to mobile internet. Research into the cause behind this gap in connectivity points to three primary barriers to internet use: a lack of locally-relevant content, a lack of digital skills and limited affordability among segments of the population.

Connectivity is vital to building community and enabling socio-economic inclusion. This year’s World Economic Forum on Latin America presents a unique opportunity to discuss the connectivity solutions that Latin America so desperately needs. It’s not just governments or billion dollar companies that stand to benefit from a connected Latin America, it’s the region’s people that will benefit the most.

At BT, we have seen first-hand that there is a direct correlation between internet and the use of information and communications technology (ICT) in creating jobs and reducing poverty. For example, we are among a group of organizations working with the Colombian Ministry of Information Technologies and Communication on a social telecommunications programme, aimed at giving the country a technological boost through internet use and the development of a national digital ecosystem.

The programme, Vive Digital, is a prime example of how government, community, business and technology can be brought together to combat the issues that hinder connectivity.

Vive Digital provided more than 6,000 students with 100% forgivable loans to study ICT-related careers as part of its Talento Digital initiative. In addition, 2.5 million public servants have been certified as digital citizens, empowering them to take ownership of technology and its functionality.

As well as training, Vive Digital partners provided infrastructure that led to 50% of households being connected to broadband internet, which is something only 17% of households had in 2010. Additionally, 47 remote areas gained connectivity through high-speed networks, including the Amazon, San Andres and the Orinoquia, which previously had no access to broadband internet. To counter limits around the affordability of connected devices, Vive Digital also set up kiosks in remote areas so everyone from farmers to students, and women-led households could have access to internet.

Finally, the programme addressed the need to source locally relevant coverage. GSMA’s study found a lack of local content as the most important factor for a lack of connectivity – more than affordability or coverage – in most of Latin America. Generally, local content is entertainment focused. As a result, people tend to believe that the internet is merely a channel for entertainment. They are unaware of how much research, data, health information and other tools can be accessed online. Vive Digital created a national network of ViveLabs, installing 17 laboratories to develop digital content: video games, informational animation series, devices and applications. Online marketing and monetization workshops were also provided.

We wholeheartedly believe in the role of connectivity in improving lives, and helping connect Latin America has given us the opportunity to show how this can be done. We, collectively, have brought this digital era to life and its potential is ours to tap. Our modern world is driven by connectivity, let’s use that connectively to drive together towards a better tomorrow.

The World Economic Forum on Latin America is taking place in Medellin, Colombia from 16 to 17 June.

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