At least 77 million rural inhabitants in Latin America and the Caribbean have no access to high-quality internet services
(IICA, 29/10/2020) - At least 77 million rural inhabitants in Latin America and the Caribbean are unable to access internet services that satisfy minimal quality standards, according to the study “Rural Connectivity in Latin America and the Caribbean – a Bridge to Sustainable Development During a Pandemic”, which was presented on Thursday by the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture (IICA), the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) and Microsoft.
The study, which focused on 24 Latin American and Caribbean countries, provides a comprehensive overview of the status of rural connectivity in the region, revealing that 71% of the urban population in Latin America and the Caribbean have connectivity options, in comparison to only 37% of their counterparts in rural areas, which is a 34 percentage-point gap that undermines the immense social, economic and production potential of the latter.
In total, 32% of the Latin American and Caribbean population, that is 244 million people, have no internet access.
The connectivity gap is more pronounced when one compares urban and rural communities, sometimes amounting to a 40 percentage-point gap. Of the total amount of individuals with no internet access, 46 million live in rural areas.
The research identified major limitations in the availability of official statistics, which made it difficult to provide a more accurate assessment of the true level of connectivity in rural areas of the Americas. Only 50% of countries in the region have a precise measurement of the level of rural connectivity.
In order to compensate for these deficiencies, IICA, IDB and Microsoft developed an index to measure the quality of rural connectivity.
For purposes of the study, the researchers developed the Substantial Rural Connectivity Index (SRCi) and the Substantial Urban Connectivity Index (SUCi), enabling them to measure the quality of connectivity, based on the information available in official statistics and in accordance with other existing indices, for example the IDB’s Broadband Development Index; the GSMA (Group Special Mobile Association) Mobile Connectivity Index; and the General Connectivity Index, used by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU).
The estimate enabled the team to characterize the situation in Latin America, by defining three clusters among the 24 countries, all of which have shortcomings in rural connectivity, which have existed for decades.
-High-level significant rural connectivity cluster
This includes Bahamas, Barbados, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica and Panama, which together represent 37% of the sample rural population.
In these countries, between 53% and 63% of some 43 million people do not have access to connectivity services of sufficient quality.
- Medium-level significant rural connectivity cluster:
This includes Argentina, Ecuador, Mexico, Paraguay, Dominican Republic, Trinidad and Tobago and Uruguay, which represent 35% of the sample rural population.
In these countries, between 64% and 71% of approximately 40.4 million people had no access to internet services at sufficient quality levels.
- Low significant rural connectivity cluster:
This includes Belize, Bolivia, El Salvador, Guatemala, Guyana, Honduras, Jamaica, Nicaragua, Peru and Venezuela, which represent approximately 28 % of the sample rural population.
In these countries, between 71% and 89% of approximately 32.5 million people had no access to internet services at sufficient quality levels.
The study showed that only seven countries in the region had sufficiently complete and specific information that would enable researchers to access data about the pillars of significant rural connectivity: daily internet use, availability of equipment, broadband access and 4G technology in these areas.
The research found that the most significant shortcoming in terms of connectivity was low internet frequency, with only 10% of the rural population on average (or 21% if Brazil is excluded) who use the internet daily. Following that in importance was the limited availability of broadband, with an average of 16.6% of the rural population able to access this service.
The situation is more satisfactory when it comes to the use of equipment (primarily smart phones) and access to 4G technology, where there is an average penetration level of 71% and 37%, respectively, in rural areas (48% and 15% if Brazil is excluded).
Manuel Otero, the Director General of IICA, explained that, “We have set ourselves a very ambitious goal: to reposition rural areas as regions that have tremendous potential to become areas of progress and prosperity, which is something that will necessitate production linkages enabled by access to adequate levels of services, technology and connectivity. As a key institution in the agriculture sector, IICA is working with its partners to join efforts with countries and the private sector. Our goal is to drastically reduce the gaps that are hindering development. The rural-urban connectivity gap is an issue that demands the greatest level of attention”.
“The absence of connectivity is not merely a technological barrier. It also represents a barrier to health, education, social services, work and the overall economy”, argued Marcelo Carbrol, Social Sector Manager at the IDB. “If we do not bridge this gap, the divide will continue to expand, and we will allow a region that is already the most inequitable in the world to become even more inequitable”.
Luciano Braverman, Director of Education at Microsoft Latin America indicated that, “At Microsoft, we know that connectivity provides a population with many opportunities to work and generate income, to acquire the knowledge and information that facilitates this work, as well as to access telemedicine health services and online educational content. It is particularly important that we stress the positive and extensive social and production impact that full connectivity will provide to rural areas. For this reason, we are prioritizing our efforts to bring connectivity to rural areas in Latin America and the Caribbean”.
Data cited in the study indicates that a 1% increase in fixed broadband penetration would result in a 0.08% increase in GDP, whereas a 1% increase in mobile broadband penetration would produce a 0.15% increase in GDP.
Moreover, with respect to processes of digitalization, it is estimated that a 1% increase in the Digital Ecosystem Development Index would create a 0.13% increase in the per capita GDP, with consequent positive repercussions on productivity.
Sandra Ziegler, the IICA researcher who led the study, explained that, “We conducted numerous interviews and 39 key sources from the private and public sectors gave us data to establish an accurate picture of the connectivity situation in the region, at a time when the spread of COVID-19 is exacerbating the marginalization of almost one third of the Latin American and Caribbean population in terms of internet use”.
OBJECTIVES OF THE STUDY
IICA, IDB and Microsoft undertook this research because the organizations felt that promoting connectivity is essential and a priority to fuel overall production, social and community development in rural areas.
Moreover, technological transformations and their application to production in rural areas, with the consequent economic benefits, will call for the promotion of policies and initiatives that bridge the rural connectivity gap.
The research also serves as an appeal for decisive action by governments, the private sector and civil society to quickly remedy the rural connectivity gaps, as the situation triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic is the greatest recession recorded in the history of Latin America and the Caribbean. It is pushing more people below the poverty line and increasing the number of individuals living in extreme poverty.
The study has also concluded that technological changes in rural areas have helped to increase the productivity level of crops in the most disadvantaged regions, and thus connectivity has immense potential to help break the vicious cycle that is currently generating insecurity, poverty and migration from these areas.
A substantial boost in rural connectivity will also be a key factor in facilitating producers’ access to market chains, contributing to generational succession in agriculture, empowering rural women and fueling the bioeconomy, among other impacts, and will also be essential for the dissemination of knowledge and strategic information to improve crops and crop yields and to implement good agricultural practices, which in turn will boost income generation in rural areas.
OBSTACLES TO THE EXPANSION OF CONNECTIVITY IN LATIN AMERICA AND THE CARIBBEAN
-Incomplete information regarding the true status of rural connectivity.
- Limitations in the use of universal access funds.
-Problems in the installation of networks, due to infrastructural issues in countries (lack of electricity, road conditions, etc.).
-High investment costs and less cost-effectiveness for operating companies
-Limited number of incentives to stimulate investment in rural areas.
- Inaccessibility of the most remote areas (due to geographical reasons or violence).
-Problems related to the affordability of devices and higher costs for mobile phone and internet services for rural inhabitants.
-Lack of infrastructural maps with information about telecommunication networks that would allow one to pinpoint areas with no coverage, which could potentially be connected quickly.
PUBLIC POLICY RECOMMENDATIONS:
- Universalization of connectivity, greater diffusion of digital technologies combined with training activities to enhance their use, which are all fundamental for the future of agricultural production.
-It is critical that States, in compiling data, include statistics about the differences between connectivity in urban and rural areas.
-Increased affordability of internet access and devices.
-Public policies that drive States to invest in the establishment of the necessary infrastructure and development of regulatory instruments that encourage private investment to enable the provision of services to the most inaccessible areas.
-Redefining of subsidies, public-private partnerships, fiscal incentives and universal access funds—the instruments that are usually used to drive investment—in order to expand coverage.
-Infrastructural maps to enable countries to determine if current shortcomings in the system are due to market issues based on limited economic-financial profitability (which would justify public intervention) or if obstacles are due to jurisdiction-related issues, in which case the regulatory aspect would have to be addressed.
-Design of solutions and strategies tailored to specific contexts, using technology most suitable for different situations (fiber optics, satellites, etc.), and also tailored to the target populations, with a particular gender and rural youth focus.
-Widespread use of TVWS technology as a secondary service or as free use of the UHF band in rural areas where it has been more difficult to guarantee internet access. This technology utilizes the radio frequency spectrum of between 470MHz and 698MHz, which had previously been assigned to television broadcasters, but has now been freed up after the shift from analogue to digital television. This platform can provide high-speed Internet access to the most remote areas of Latin America and the Caribbean with minimal infrastructural investment.
-Generation of specific content and fueling of the demand for connectivity in rural areas as a way to encourage the expansion and use of new information and communication technologies. The development of learning platforms, the training of extension officers through information and communication technologies, and the diffusion of good practices for the development of agriculture, through the incorporation of technology, can all stimulate demand and drive the increased use of ICTs in rural activity, especially among those segments that are still lagging behind in technology use.
Institutional Communication Division at IICA